Colds, collops, and meldrops: Bill’s Head snivels

Bill catches a cold and discusses some cold-related words
Oct 032011
Photo by Jen Waller

Though I don’t read a lot of detective fiction, I seem to be drawn to Scandinavian and Icelandic detective fiction, and I’ve been working my way through the Swedish Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell.* Last week I started the seventh book in that series, One Step Behind, and within the first two paragraphs read this passage:

…the dampness had nonetheless seeped through his clothing. He felt a sudden flash of anger. He didn’t want to catch a cold. Not now, not in the middle of summer.

Come on: it’s the 21st century (well, it was still the late 20th when the book was written, but still). Don’t we all know that viruses cause colds, not damp weather? In typical Bill fashion I was getting all annoyed at Henning Mankell for propagating an old wives’ tale–I even highlighted the passage and added a cranky annotation (yay, Kindle!)–but then decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he as the author knows better even if his character does not.

If Henning Mankell were dead and if I believed in such things I would say that his spirit was taking revenge from beyond the grave, because a few days later I came down with a cold myself. Not from the damp, cool weather, mind you, but presumably from some dirty, infected person who coughed into their hand hand before touching a door or handing me my change or something. Perhaps my body was weakened and especially susceptible to infection because I had stayed up half the night relocating Bill’s Head and was consequently tired all the next day.

Anyway. There I was on Saturday afternoon, suffering mightily (well, slightly) from my cold, reading the aforementioned One Step Behind and thinking about the fact that I had a cold, when I started to wonder why it’s called a cold. The obvious answer would be that it’s called that because people used to think that you got a cold from being cold, but that seemed too easy–Bill’s Razor (Latin lex prolixitae) states that you should never accept a simple answer when a more complicated answer might be found.

So I asked Internet why a cold is called a cold, and got exactly that answer from various Q&A sites: because “ancient” people used to think that you caught cold from being cold. Such sites are often hotbeds of inaccurate folk wisdom, though, so I kept digging, but eventually realized that in this case, the obvious answer was the correct one. As the OED puts it, a cold is “an indisposition of the body caused by exposure to cold.” One possible source of the correlation between colds and cold: in cold, wet weather, people are more likely to be indoors, in close contact to other people, and thus more likely to get infected.

It turns out that it’s not just old wives and detective fiction characters who cling to the belief that cold temperatures cause colds. In my searching I came across this New York Times article, which describes a few of the many scientific experiments conducted since the late 1800s attempting to prove or disprove a link between cold weather and infection, including this one:

The discovery of the rhinovirus, the most common cause of the common cold, inspired Texas researchers to readdress the question. In 1968, they reported that they had chilled 27 men in a cold room or a cold bath, then dripped a strain of rhinovirus in their noses at various times afterward. Some were chilled after they had actually developed a cold, to see whether it lingered longer.

Chilling had no effect on the chances of catching a cold or the severity of colds caught. Enough is enough, these researchers said at the end of their report. “Further studies seem unwarranted.”

An interesting tidbit from that article: people with stronger immune systems experience more severe symptoms when they have a cold, because the symptoms are a result of the immune system’s response to the infection. Of course, if you have a stronger immune system it seems like you’d be less likely to catch the cold to begin with.

At this point my nose started to drip a little bit on the keyboard, and I remembered that there are some interesting words for that.

From the Norse (speaking of Scandinavia) mel-dropi (drop or foam from a horse’s mouth) comes meldrop, used for the same purpose in English, but also to refer generally to a little drop of mucus at the end of the nose. Meldrop was deemed by one writer (in 1480) to be “the least offensive species of mucus from the nose.” The word can also be used more generally for a dew drop or some other hanging drop of water.

Presumably collop would be one of the more offensive species of mucus: it is defined by the OED as “a clot of mucus from the nose or throat.” The origin of this word is obscure, but appears to have something to do with beaten or stewed meat. Collop was originally (1362) an egg and bacon dish akin to fried ham and eggs. From there it broadened to refer to a slice of meat in general or, for a while, a piece of flesh. Based on figurative application of this meaning, the word was used to refer to offspring (Shakespeare used it thus). As a more general application, it was used to describe any slice or piece. Up until this point, the evolution of the word has been easy to understand. How the word came, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, to refer to mucus, is not so easy to follow; I leave it to your imagination.

The day before Shrove Tuesday is in many parts of Britain called Collop Monday, owing to the custom of eating collops of bacon (not clots of mucus) on this day.

And speaking of offspring, when you speak of a “sniveling little brat,” you’re probably talking about a sniffling child. This usage of the word didn’t appear until almost 1800, though: originally, the verb snivel meant “to emit mucus from the nose,” or “to draw up mucus audibly” from the throat. The noun snivel, derived from the verb, refers to the mucus itself.

So the next time you have a cold, be sure to use the excuse to drop meldrop, collop, and snivel into your conversations. You’ll be glad you did.


In addition to Henning Mankell, I’ve also read some Kerstin Ekman (Swedish) and Arnaldur Indridason (Icelandic). I liked Arnaldur’s Jar City, but recently was unable to get through the movie adaptation, partly because of the relentless choral soundtrack that makes the whole thing feel even grimmer than it is.

Norwegian Jo Nesbø is apparently the new hot thing in this department, at least here in the US where publishers are desperately looking for “The Next Stieg Larsson.” I read The Redbreast but I already can’t remember how well I liked it. I haven’t rushed out to buy any of his other books, so apparently I can live without him.

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