Chikungunya is NOT a Swahili word, it is from the Makonde language
Submitted by Kamusi Editor on 7 February 2008 - 6:31am
Many articles have appeared recently in newspapers around the world about a disease called "Chikungunya," which is similar to dengue fever. The term is INCORRECTLY said to derive from Swahili, meaning "that which bends up." With the help of Charles Riley, an African collections specialist at the Yale library, we offer the following information.
The first article to describe the disease was written by Marion Robinson. It appeared as "An Epidemic of Virus Disease in Southern Province, Tanganyika Territory, in 1952-53; I. Clinical Features," in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Volume 49, Number 1, January 1955. You can download the article in pdf format here
Robinson writes the following on page 28. Notice that she does NOT state that the language is Swahili. Rather, she says that the term is a local name from the Makonde Plateau, an area where Swahili would not have been predominant in the 1950s. The assertion that the term comes from Swahili was in all likelihood first made by a later writer who read Robinson's article, knew that Swahili was the most widely spoken language in the region, and made the mistaken assumption that Swahili was the language to which Robinson referred. Here is the original quotation:
The epidemic to be described occurred on the Makonde Plateau in the Southern Province of Tanganyika. It was clinically indistinguishable from dengue, if allowance is made for the inherent variability of that disease. Dengue has not been reported from the area before and no inhabitant can remember a similar epidemic. Owing to the distinctive severity of the joint pains and the sudden onset a local name was rapidly applied ; the disease became known as chikungunya, meaning- " that which bends up".
A second article in the same journal provides a more detailed derivation. The author was W. H. R. Lumsden. The article was "An Epidemic of Virus Disease in Southern Province, Tanganyika Territory, in 1952-53; II. General Description and Epidemiology," in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Volume 49, Number 1, January 1955. You can download the article in pdf format here.
Lumsden clearly states that "chikungunya" comes from the MAKONDE language, not from Swahili. The word derives from the Makonde term for contortion, thus leading to the translation Robinson cites relating to "bending up." Here's the quotation from Lumsden:
The disease was at an early time given a Kimakonde name -- chikungunya. According to an educated local chief this word is derived from a root verb -- kungunyala -- meaning to dry up or become contorted, and signifies the cause of a contortion or folding. It is thought to be a new word only as applied to the disease, not as to its other uses which refer to the drying of leaves and the reaction of the sensitive plant.
We can therefore state beyond any doubt that "chikunguyna" is NOT a Swahili word, and almost certainly derives from the Makonde language. (We welcome any Makonde speakers to provide confirmation by replying to this message.) Unfortunately, the error has been repeated endlessly, so that Google now finds over 18,000 hits for "chikungunya swahili." While we cannot fix those mistakes, perhaps this brief posting will help prevent the further propagation of the erroneous claim that chikungunya is in any way derived from Swahili.
--Martin Benjamin, April 20, 2006
Follow-up, February 7, 2008.
It is gratifying to note that news articles have increasingly made the correct reference to chikungunya as a Makonde word since this article first appeared. The contents of this article were summarized in Wikipedia, which has apparently been a first stop for journalists and scholars writing about the spread of the disease. As of this writing, Google only indexes 8,200 hits for "chikungunya swahili," and is now up to over 700 hits for "chikungunya makonde," including this Slate article. I hope the disease itself can be wiped out as effectively as the erroneous information about its linguistic derivation!