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TWTS: When cabin fever comes on strong

This past week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the stay-at-home order until May 15th. That means an extension of the cabin fever making the rounds.

Symptoms of cabin fever include irritability, restlessness, and anxiety. It's treatable with long walks or runs, jigsaw puzzles, Zoom meetups with friends, or anything else that keeps you from climbing the walls.

Solving language mysteries is also known to help, so we decided to tackle "cabin fever." 

There's a theory that "cabin fever" gets its name from ship cabins. The idea is that people would get cabin fever after being stuck in their cabins on long trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific boat rides. While this is a perfectly plausible explanation, "cabin fever" actually gets its name from a different type of cabin.

"Cabin fever" refers to the kind of cabin you would have found on the American frontier. The idea is that people would find themselves stuck inside their cabins during the harsh winter months, completely isolated.

This phrase goes back to the early 1900s or possibly the late 1800s. In 1918, a novel called "Cabin Fever" includes the line, "...the mind fed too long upon monotony succumbs to the insidious mental ailment which the West calls 'cabin fever.'"

What's interesting about "cabin fever" is that it's ambiguous.

If you look at the history of "fever," it comes into English from Latin very early. By the 1300s, it’s being used figuratively to describe nervous excitement or intense enthusiasm or interest in something. We still do that today in phrases like "tulip fever,” “Academy Award fever,” and “Spring fever.”

With that in mind, "cabin fever" can be interpreted two ways: either you’re itching to get out of your cabin or you’re itching to be in it. If you happen to own a vacation cabin, you may even experience both cabin fevers at the same time.

Please note, we realize that pandemic-induced "cabin fever" doesn't apply to essential workers. We'd like to extend our gratitude to the healthcare workers, the grocery store workers, and others who are out there every day, doing the essential work. Thank you for everything you do.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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