An outbreak of what is commonly being called “swine flu” (more scientifically, H1N1 influenza) is now underway. There is a real fear of the possibility of pandemic, so nations around the globe — including those not yet infected — are making plans to prevent this. In the midst of all the work that needs to be done, though, it turns out that someone has found the time to inject hyperreligiosity into the matter. The very name “swine flu” is religiously objectionable, as the BBC reports:

Israeli Health Minister Yakov Litzman has been updating a nervous public on the swine flu epidemic — and he started by renaming it for religious reasons.

“We will call it Mexican flu. We won’t call it swine flu,” said Mr Litzman, who belongs to the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism party. …

Yakov Litzman serves as deputy health minister in the recently-formed government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who took the position of health minister himself.

Mr Litzman is one of eight ultra-Orthodox Jewish ministers and deputy ministers in Mr Netanyahu’s administration.

Admittedly the term “swine flu” is not necessarily helpful in and of itself, and this particular outbreak may not have involved swine (the jury is still out on that). But, for better or worse, that’s how this particular variety of the flu is widely known, and has been for some time. Renaming at this point — for reasons other than scientific clarity — is probably not too smart, as it can promote confusion. But that hardly is the concern of hyperreligious folks. For them, names mean everything, to the point where they’re believed to have metaphysical power over things. Of course, it doesn’t matter that calling it “swine flu,” or “Mexican flu,” or “flibbertygibbet flu” for that matter, doesn’t make it any more or less deadly; but for those sufficiently in thrall to metaphysics, it does. I guess deputy minister Litzman doesn’t know his Shakespeare:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet …
(Romeo & Juliet, Act II Scene 2)

Belief in the power of names to alter things, does not mean that they have this power. It just means people are able to delude themselves into thinking they do.

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