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Friday, June 19, 2020

Shingles (the roof kind and the illness)

Photo by Austin Walker on Unsplash
A friend of mine came down with the painful ailment known as shingles last week. All her friends commiserated on Facebook and wished her a speedy recovery.

I, meanwhile, heartless as usual, was thinking:
  1. What does that have to do with the shingles on my roof?
  2. Is "shingles" singular or plural?
Actually I did wish her well too! Shingles is a horrible affliction.

First question: What does that have to do with the shingles on my roof?

Well.... nothing.

These are two entirely different words.

The roofing shingles, like so many architecture words, apparently came into English from French after the Norman Conquest, though no such word now survives in French. It is thought that it came from Latin scindula, a later form of scandula ‘a split piece of wood’.

There are a couple of idioms associated with this word:

hang out one's shingle
(apparently only North American, though I did not know this before)
  • Begin to practise a profession.

    ‘a license to hang out their shingle as a financial adviser’

And the ever inventive Australians have come up with
a shingle short
Australian informal

(of a person) stupid or slightly mad.

The malady "shingles", on the other hand, which also came into English in the Middle English period, comes from Latin cingulus (a girdle or belt), because the red rash caused by it looks like a belt around the torso. This description can be better detected in the modern German name for the disease, Gürtelrose. The medical name for the condition also includes this idea of a girdle: herpes zoster comes ultimately from Greek zōstēr ‘girdle, belt, and herpēs, literally ‘creeping’, from herpein ‘to creep’.

2nd question: Is "shingles" singular or plural?

As you can see, the "s" at the end of "shingles" is not etymologically an indicator of a plural; it's just the "s" in the Latin cingulus. So technically "shingles" is a singular noun, and treated as such.

shingles is a painful, blistering skin rash that affects more than 1 million Americans every year

It can be plural when the emphasis is on the resulting blisters rather than the illness itself (The shingles were extremely painful), although I don't think it's possible to create a singular "shingle". But most of the people on my friend's Facebook post referred to the disease in the plural, no doubt influenced, as we English speakers are so much, by that final s.

One good result of this: it reminded me I was due for the booster on my shingles vaccine, so I hustled off to the drugstore to have that taken care of.  I wish it hadn't taken her coming down with it to give me that nudge.

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  1. This is so fascinating! With bonus info on "zoster," which I had always been curious about.

  2. Another disease I've often wondered about is the common-or-garden COLD. Was it erroneously thought to be caused by low temperatures, or is there a more scientific explanation, I wonder?

    1. When it was thought that the body was regulated by the four humours or temperaments, an excess of the cold humours ("Phlegm") was thought to cause the respiratory infection, but also exposure to cold air.

    2. Thank you! That makes perfect sense.

    3. Good old phlegm. Just when we thought we were beyond it, we all got masks.

  3. I have a feeling that hanging out a shingle was more literal than an idiom years ago. Didn’t businesses in the towns that popped up during construction booms or gold rushes make crude signs on a pieces of wood identifying their profession, or is that just something portrayed in old movies of the Wild West?

    1. Definitely signs were made on wooden shingles. Not necessarily crude though, I think (but am not sure)

  4. Totally agree that the shingles vaccine is a very good idea. I hope your friend is feeling better soon. For people who aren't sure about their vaccinations as adults, there isa very good episode entitled "I'm a grown up. What vaccines do I need?" at CBC's podcast "The Dose".

    Another use of the word "shingle" is to describe a beach with gravel or stones rather than sand. I wonder about the origin of that use.

  5. hang out one's shingle:
    Begin to practise a profession.
    ‘a license to hang out their shingle as a financial adviser’

    Can't be the right definition, methinks.
    1. omits the clear sense of posting publicly, as JanineMarie suggests.
    2. seems to omit, say, practising the profession for a decade, moving, and starting up in a new location.

    "public posting that one is available to provide a service"


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.