Is Chickenpox Named After Chickens?

What could a species of bird and a virus have in common? Many once believed that warts were caused by frogs, so perhaps it's easy to connect other animals with other skin afflictions. However, chickens and chickenpox may only be even more loosely connected than frogs and warts.

According to the Mayo Clinic, chickenpox is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which causes an itchy rash with blisters. The virus is highly contagious to people who have not already had the disease or have not received the vaccine to prevent it. 

Britannica defines chickens — also known as gallus domesticus — as domesticated birds that cannot fly. They are the most populous domesticated bird. Contrary to the name chickenpox, chickens cannot contract the varicella-zoster virus. They do not transmit the virus either. Chickenpox, instead, is spread through direct contact with the rash or through inhaling droplets from an infected person's coughs or sneezes (via Mayo Clinic). If chickens cannot catch or spread chickenpox, why is the varicella-zoster virus called chickenpox?

Chickens vs. Chickenpox

One theory as to how chickenpox got its name is the chickens' association with weakness. Think of the taunt commonly used when someone is scared to do something, or "too chicken." The "chicken" in chickenpox distinguishes it from the more severe, yet similar conditions: smallpox and syphilis (via MentalFloss). Chickenpox is mild in comparison. This theory first came about in 1755 when Samuel Johnson attributed the origin of the term to the fact that the disease is "of no very great danger" in his dictionary (via PMC).

Despite Johnson's dictionary entry, KidsHealth offers another theory for the centuries-old colloquial term for the varicella-zoster virus. The bumpy appearance of the rash was once compared to chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans. The bumps are, of course, smaller than chickpeas. Chickenpox bumps are only five to ten millimeters wide. Even still, the disease's association with weakness as compared to smallpox and syphilis is the most widely accepted theory (via PMC).