Each year, approximately 50 million Americans suffer from allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Their suffering can take many forms, from the seasonal snifflers who track the ups and downs of the pollen count like the stock market, to food allergy sufferers who must guard against peanuts or eggs or strawberries year round.
Allergies have become so common a cause for concern and conversation that the word seems to almost have lost its meaning—assuming it ever had one. “People use the word allergy to describe anything they just don’t like,” says William Reisacher, a doctor and professor of head and neck surgery at Weill Cornell Medicine. “I had a patient who came in with an upper respiratory illness. She says, ‘I think I have allergies.’ I said, ‘No, it’s a cold, this is a virus.’ And she said, ‘Well I’m allergic to the virus.’”
Coined in 1906 by the Viennese pediatrician Baron Clemens von Pirquet, “allergy” is a combination of the Greek word “allos,” which means changed, and “ergon,” which means reaction. “The word just means ‘different reaction.’ That’s it,” Reisacher says. The idea was at first rejected by the medical community, but von Pirquet's work ultimately came to redefine our perception of immunology. (Our immune system, it turns out, can hurt us even as it tries to protect us.)
Doctors weren’t the only ones to incorporate this amorphous, enticing, and downright fashionable phrase into their vocabularies. As Juan Manuel Igea wrote in a 2013 article in the journal Allergy, “the word [allergy] has long ago escaped from physicians and gone to the streets, where it is popularly used also as synonymous with antipathy and rejection.”
Today, there are still plenty of mysteries left for allergists to solve. Still, Reisacher says, doctors have spent the last century studying how allergies really work at a cellular level and can offer their patients real, concrete explanations of their illness and, increasingly, real solutions. But first, we’ve got to start using this word correctly. Here’s how.