The recent outbreak of measles in the United States is incredible for a lot of reasons, especially since the country declared the disease officially eliminated here in 2000. But the word measles–and the disease, to be sure–has been around for a long time.
The first ‘case’ of measles in the English language was documented as early as 1325, where, in the form of maseles, it glosses a French term for the same, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
The disease, of course, is associated with its rash of red spots. These spots lent measles as a term for execresences on trees in the 1600s and blemishes on photographs or paper in the late 1800s. And it’s these very spots which may be symptoms, if you will, of its origin.
The word measles is Germanic in origin, with etymologists citing immediate origins in either Middle Dutch (masel) or Middle Low German (maselen) words for blood-blisters and sickly skin spots or scars. But etymologically, measles is not all bad. The word and its Germanic sources are also associated with some rather lovely things: a mazer, a drinking vessel typically made of out maple or out of the knot of a maple tree. The maple tree may be named for its own spotted wood, making the very word maple possibly related to measles. The evidence for these sorts of matters can be quite spotty, but some kind of “spot” or “blemish” seems to be ultimately behind measles.
The pronunciation and spelling of measles appears to have been influenced by mesel, an etymologically unrelated word used of leprosy. All things considered, the measles are quite rare in many places today compared to past epidemics, which can conceal the fact that measles is responsible for the word measly. The OED dates this adjective for “inferior,” “paltry,” or “stingy” back to 1847, and its usage may be in part due to associations with the word miserly or miserable, as well as a pig disease also named measles and the leprous mesel we just encountered.
Curiously, a great many of the documented epidemics of measles affected the original Thirteen Colonies that broke free from Great Britain. Now, the measles outbreak has spread a rather feverish controversy over, among other matters, the right not to vaccinate, which really puts the red in the red, white, and blue.