Whooping cough, known by its medical name pertussis, has been in the news lately due to its disturbing reemergence. So far this year, nearly 1,500 cases have been reported in California alone. An infant died of the disease on Tuesday in Los Angeles County.
Pertussis is an infectious illness of the respiratory mucous membrane characterized by a series of short, severe coughs that are often followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like “whoop.” The disease is named after this sound: whoop derives from the Old French houper, “to cry out, “ and goes back to at least 1460.
Whooping is correctly pronounced as “hoo-ping.”
Ironically, a whoop is defined as both a joyful cry and also has the sound made by someone infected with the disease.
Something that is not worth a whoop is worthless. And the expression to whoop it up means to celebrate noisily, to raise a disturbance, or to stir up enthusiasm. Whoop de doo is a way of saying “big deal.” Then there are whoopie cushions, whoopie cakes, and whoopie pie (a confection of two small and flat chocolate cakes with cream frosting in the middle, famous in New England.) And of course, there is the whooping crane, “a white North American crane, Grus americana, having a loud, whooping call.”
For the first half of the 20th century, whooping cough was a leading cause of childhood illness and death. A successful vaccine program largely eradicated the problem.
Early symptoms of whooping cough resemble those of a common cold, such as sneezing, a dry cough, and watery eyes. But after a week or two, symptoms worsen. Prolonged coughing attacks may cause a red or blue face, vomiting, and, of course, the tell tale whoop sound.
One thing is for certain, no one is whooping it up over the rise in pertussis.