A flu by any other name

Reporters covering the story of influenza A H1N1 in Canada should tread carefully when sources start to offer nicknames other than swine flu.


The World Health Organization website noted Apr 30 it is now using the more precise clinical term of influenza A H1N1.   A shift from swine might generate a sigh of relief from pork producers in  Canada and the United States. But the loss of a common name could leave newsrooms and politicians debating an alternative to strike a the balance between public clarity and scientific/linguistic precision.

In Canada, the term Mexican flu was offered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, prompting Globe and Mail writer Josh Wingrove to take note of the labeling issue. Wingrove writes the Mexican government isn’t all that thrilled with catching a colloquial hot potato. 

Other voices suggest the geographical/national moniker is turning out to be more loaded than that. A U.S.racial justice thinktank highlights examples on its blog RaceWire of how the term Mexican flu is being used within the American right-wing mediascape to further inflame the racialized debate over immigration in the United States.


To make the problem clear, Racewire offers its own parody nickname – Spring Breaker flu — and substitutes it in a few media transcripts. The result is a humorous — if a bit sobering — reminder of the power of language. It is also a good primer for Journalists in another well-established research area of social science — social identity theory.