German measles

Michael Quinion TheEditor at WORLDWIDEWORDS.ORG
Fri Nov 22 14:24:32 UTC 2002

Dodi Schultz wrote:

> Does anyone on the list know the origin (and reason) for the term
> "German" measles, as the viral infection rubella was formerly
> known? The question's come up in the CompuServe words section. One
> of my dictionaries says it started in the mid-19th century but
> offers no explanation.

Intriguingly, the index to "Horsefeathers", by Charles Earle Funk,
says "French measles, see under German measles". Mr Funk says it was
so named because it was first described by a German physician,
Friedrich Hoffmann, in 1740. Several Web sites say the same thing.

My impression, from a quick look at my literature database, is that
the term "German measles" didn't really become at all popular in
English until the early years of the twentieth century. It appears
in works by Edna Ferber (1911), J M Barrie (1911), George Bernard
Shaw (1913), and Willa Catha (1922). The earliest I have found is
from "Love Affairs Of A Bibliomaniac" by Eugene Field (1896), which
is well after the OED's first entry.

Michael Quinion
Editor, World Wide Words
E-mail: <TheEditor at>
Web: <>

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