Can you use "plague" as a general term?



I thought "plague" was a generic word for a disease. I was corrected earlier when talking about COVID that it is a virus not a plague. I am aware it is a virus. But would it be wrong to say "We live in a time of plague" or something similar?


Posted 2020-03-27T17:12:50.870

Reputation: 151

7It's a matter of opinion. Note that most "professionals" wouldn't call Covid 19 a "plague", simply because they normally reserve that term for disease outbreaks that kill over 10% of the population (Covid mortality is almost certainly well under 5% across the whole population). But that's a matter of mortality, not the virus/bacteria distinction (which so far as I know is completely irrelevant to the word "plague"). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2020-03-27T17:19:39.637

9A plague of locusts. He was plagued by the media. – Weather Vane – 2020-03-27T17:43:46.883

4"I am aware it is a virus." – Just to be clear, COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus. The current "official" name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2, although there is some controversy around that name and some people prefer 2019-nCoV. – Jörg W Mittag – 2020-03-28T09:49:41.303

3It's completely, totally normal to use "plague" to mean basically "a lot of something" (usually a negative thing). Plague of locusts, plague of spam mail, plague of relatives visiting, etc. – Fattie – 2020-03-28T19:04:16.487

1According to every dictionary I can find, "plague" can be used to describe COVID. Not even sure why this is a question if the answer can be deduced by reading a dictionary. You should tell whoever corrected you to pick one up. – Reverse Engineered – 2020-03-30T12:14:05.513

@Fattie However, that's figurative language, and figurative terms are often avoided if there's a chance of being taken literally. If someone asks whether it's correct to call the SI tonne a ton, would you answer that it's completely totally normal to use a ton to mean any big mass, like "this bag weighs a ton"? – JiK – 2020-03-30T14:25:18.713

@JiK (1) in English it is utterly commonplace that words have more than one meaning (2) one OED definiton of "plague" is (of course) *"a contagious disease that spreads rapidly and kills many people" - OED*. (3) figurative language is totally uninvolved (4) the idea that the word "plague" (or "bubonic plague") "means" (or even more naively "is a scientific term for") "the possible disease, as much as we know about it, which is all-but nothing, often referred to as one of the various 'black deaths' during very roughly speaking the middle ages" - is just naive! I'm afraid! – Fattie – 2020-03-30T15:18:13.703

simply wikipedia "black death" (or similar) for more info on this – Fattie – 2020-03-30T15:18:28.550

I can only copy and paste what RE says, According to every dictionary I can find, "plague" can be used to describe COVID. Why is this even being discussed????! – Fattie – 2020-03-30T15:23:42.330

@Fattie Are you saying that figurative language is totally uninvolved in "a plague of relatives visiting"? – JiK – 2020-03-30T15:26:09.953

@JiK the literal OED, current edition, defintion of "plague" is nothing more than "a thing causing trouble or irritation." - OED (and it gives a few examples of that extremely common usage). it's not a "figurative" usage and as I say has no connection at all to figurative language. If I say "You're a lion of a programmer" that is figurative. The actual dictionary definition, and absolutely common every day usage, of plague is "a thing causing trouble or irritation." - OED – Fattie – 2020-03-30T15:33:34.200

The word plague has a very common, widely used meaning which excludes infectious disease. It's so common that it has become a verb for anything that bothers or disturbs, such as to be plagued by doubts, or plagued by paparazzi. It also has a more specific meaning of a disease which spreads quickly and causes high mortality. It also has a third, separate meaning, of a specific bacterial illness. None of these are wrong, all of them are correct in a given context. As with pretty much any English word, context is absolutely essential to understanding the meaning of a word. – barbecue – 2020-03-30T23:21:50.667



"Plague" can have several different meanings depending on context:

In its most technical form, "plague" is used to refer specifically to diseases caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis (e.g. "bubonic plague", "pneumonic plague", etc). This has historically also been known by names such as "the black death", etc. In this sense, COVID-19 is definitely not a form of "plague", because it is not caused by that bacterium (it is not caused by bacteria at all, as it is a viral disease).

In a more general sense, "plague" is sometimes used to refer to any disease which is widespread and has a fairly high mortality rate. In this sense, COVID-19 could potentially be considered "a plague", except that its mortality rate is still relatively low compared to most other things that have been called "plagues" in the past, so most people probably wouldn't consider it to meet the criteria (at least not yet).

In a looser, often joking way, some people will refer to any widespread disease currently going around (such as a flu) as "the plague". This use is not generally intended to be taken literally but is just a form of hyperbole.

Occasionally, "plague" is also just used as a general synonym for "widespread disease", but this is generally only used in a literary or highly metaphorical context. In this sense, you could actually say "We are living in a time of plague" to mean simply "We are living in a time of widespread disease" (without really talking about COVID-19 specifically, though it may be implied).

(It's worth noting here that I've only covered senses of the word "plague" that have to do specifically with diseases. The word does have other meanings as well, which are not necessarily tied to disease (e.g. "a plague of locusts"), but in the context of the original question, I believe these are the relevant ones.)


Posted 2020-03-27T17:12:50.870

Reputation: 4 704

1@Fattie: the senses in the answer are all fine — what your example shows is that there are further senses still beyond these, figurative senses beyond literal disease. – PLL – 2020-03-28T19:35:23.833

@Fattie I've updated my answer to make it more clear that it only covers the senses of the word specifically related to disease (since that's what the OP was asking about).. – Foogod – 2020-03-28T20:40:33.880

2Perhaps worth mentioning that figurative (non-disease) usage is generally of the form "plague of <something>". For example "My mailbox has been flooded with spam, I hate this plague" is not typical usage in my experience. You might say "My mailbox has been suffering from a plague of spam". See also Will's answer with the verb form "plagued with <something>". – Peter Cordes – 2020-03-29T04:17:12.493

2@PeterCordes - So you've never been plagued by robo-calls? – Hot Licks – 2020-03-29T22:47:40.013

@HotLicks: I forgot about the verb form until after writing the first part of that comment; I was talking about figurative uses of the noun form. But the verb form "to plague" / "plagued" already requires has an object, like in your case. "plagued by robo-calls" is like "plague of robo-calls". – Peter Cordes – 2020-03-29T22:52:04.290

@PeterCordes How about the Plagues of Egypt? Only one of them was disease. – KeizerHarm – 2020-03-30T08:36:08.327

1@KeizerHarm: that would be an exception to the "generally" (i.e. "almost always") in my first comment. Glad I didn't say "always" - I think I did initially type it that way, but decided against making an absolute claim. – Peter Cordes – 2020-03-30T08:38:05.570

1I disagree with omitting the non-disease sense here as it very much counters your "covid-19 has a low mortality rate and isn't really a plague" argument. It doesn't need to kill to be a plague. A plague of any not-specifically-Yersinia-pestis kind is defined as something that is persistent, abundant, and undesired. A plague of locusts fits that bill just as well as when you refer to a not-specifically-Yersinia-pestis disease as being a "plague", which is the precise case for covid-19. – Flater – 2020-03-30T15:09:53.620

I'm afraid this answer clouds the sense of the QA in a couple of places. "In its most technical form..." on the contrary, "plague" is not at all used 'technically' by medical academics/scientists involved in studying "that middle ages thing". "Occasionally ..." the normal, common usage of "plague" is "widespread disease", it's just confusing to prefix it with "occasionally". – Fattie – 2020-03-30T15:23:14.460

@Flater The fact that there are distinct disease-related and non-disease-related definitions means the word has different meanings depending on what it is being used to refer to. If you are talking about a disease, then it has those meanings, whether you want it to or not. Also, as Peter pointed out above, if you mean to use it as a non-disease context, you generally need to explicitly qualify it (with "of (something)", etc), otherwise disease is assumed. (I would also point out that the high mortality aspect is part of the dictionary definition, not just something I made up.) – Foogod – 2020-03-30T16:16:46.537

1@Fattie First, there is a difference between "technical" and "scientific". The first is a more technical definition, because it has more specific criteria and context. It has nothing to do with when/where it is used. Second, your assertion about use is, frankly, just wrong. "plague" is the official (medical) term for disease caused by Y. pestis. It is used all the time by doctors and scientists when discussing that disease, and if you use the word "plague" in a professional medical or biology context, everyone will assume you mean Y. pestis. – Foogod – 2020-03-30T16:24:02.720

1@Foogod "The fact that there are distinct disease-related and non-disease-related definitions means the word has different meanings depending on what it is being used to refer to." I'm not claiming there's only one definition for "plague". My point is that for not-specifically-Yersinia-pestis situations, i.e. both not-specifically-Yersinia-pestis diseases and non-diseases, the definition is the same: persistent, abundant and undesired. It's not defined by its mortality rate. My comment is a counter to the "it's not a plague due to it's low mortality rate" part of the given answer. – Flater – 2020-03-30T20:20:01.717

@Flater and I am saying that no, that point is wrong. When you are using it to refer to a disease, it has the disease-related meaning. It can be used to refer to non-diseases as generally persistent/abundant and undesired, but it only means that for things that aren't diseases. When the subject is a disease its meaning is more specific than that and you can't just use the general non-disease meaning (unless you are being deliberately hyperbolic or poetic as in my last two examples), and I believe the dictionary backs me up on that. – Foogod – 2020-03-30T23:09:35.087


A plague is a general term for an outbreak of a virulent disease. Or even more generally, any outbreak of something unpleasant.

For centuries smallpox was one of the world's most-dreaded plagues, killing as many as 30 percent of its victims.

A plague of flies descended on a Russian village after farmers used chickens droppings as fertiliser.

The word has a biblical origin, being used in the Latin bible to translate the Hebrew word for the afflictions that God sent to Egypt at the time of Moses. (The ten plagues of Egypt)

But plague is also the name of a particular disease, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. It was the cause of the black death in Eurasia and North Africa. (note that plague killed about 60% of victims)

Plague can be treated by antibiotics.

James K

Posted 2020-03-27T17:12:50.870

Reputation: 80 781


Yes, you can use plague as a “general” term.

It is also usable (as The plague) to refer to the particular disease as noted already.

Without the the, it means anything that (a) afflicts, (b) besets and (c) in general is a nuisance i.e. irritating, persistent, and / or widespread.

It's often found in compound terms, such as [place] was plagued with [pest] (e.g. Seventeenth Century London, rats; Westminster, politicians — or if you are a politician, then you might say it's plagued with journalists, civil servants and other people asking awkward questions, or possibly giving awkward answers).

Will Crawford

Posted 2020-03-27T17:12:50.870

Reputation: 955

the best answer here – Fattie – 2020-03-28T19:05:41.123

"Plague" in the narrow sense is also used without an article, and "the plague" might refer to, for example, "The plague of locusts". – James K – 2020-03-29T16:35:28.813

1"plagued with [pest]" - heh. – CodeCaster – 2020-03-30T09:09:13.023

OMG I agree with Fattie... what's wrong with the world? – barbecue – 2020-03-30T23:26:33.270


Not every disease is a plague, if that's what you were thinking.

From Merriam Webster:

Plague definition 2.a: an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality

So according to Merriam Webster, the disease has to be an epidemic and it has to cause a high rate of mortality


Posted 2020-03-27T17:12:50.870

Reputation: 374