A flu by any other name, or, flu versioning

Makers of computer software and hardware have to give each new version of a given product a new label or name, to distinguish it from other versions.

There are a variety of different approaches to version naming; a given company rarely continues a given naming scheme for more than about three or four versions. I think marketing people get antsy if you don't change the naming scheme every few years to make the product seem even newer and fancier than before.

For example, just look at Windows version numbers. A very rough outline: 1, 2, 3, NT, 95, 98, 2000, Me, XP, Vista, 7.

Or, less extreme, Dreamweaver version numbers: (roughly) 1, 2, 3, 4, MX, MX 2004, 8, CS3, CS4.

Mac OS stuck with consecutively numbered versions for a long time, but then came "System 7" (still numbered, but not quite as simple), and then Mac OS 8, 9, and "X." (The official pronunciation is "Mac Oh Ess Ten.") That OS hasn't yet gone through a period of being named by year.

After the named-by-year period there's generally a period of names that have nothing to do with version numbers--which is arguably what Apple's already done with the big-cats theme, but they still use version numbers as part of the name. And they've also missed the usual period of being named by a cryptic but cool-sounding two letters that suggest something but don't technically stand for anything (NT, XP, MX, SE, LC, cx, ci, etc), though the "X" in "Mac OS X" serves somewhat the same purpose.

Interestingly, Apple's gone through almost all those phases with hardware names; I wonder if that's part of why they've mostly avoided those phases with OS names.

I wrote most of the above on a mailing list about a year ago, during a discussion of future code names for OS X, before the name "Snow Leopard" had been revealed. Various suggestions from various sources included Cougar, Ocelot, Lynx, Bobcat, Lion, Mountain Lion, and Liger. (Also Cheetah and Puma, but those were internal code names for versions 10.0 and 10.1.)

I jokingly suggested Serval because they're super-cute, but that and Ocelot and Liger seemed to me too obscure.

And Cougar, Bobcat, and Mountain Lion all seem like a step down from big fancy cats like Leopard.

I can't resist noting one more suggestion: someone in the Unofficial Apple Weblog poll suggested Lolcat as the next OS X version name.

Anyway, speaking of animals and version names, none of that is what I meant to write today. The main point of this entry was meant to be this item from today's swine flu news update:

The World Health Organization says it will stop using the term "swine flu" to avoid confusion over the danger posed by pigs. It will instead refer to the virus by its scientific name, "H1N1 influenza A."

I understand the goal here--apparently lots of people are avoiding eating pork to avoid getting swine flu, and I'm sure the world's pork producers are unhappy about it. But I don't think the WHO is thinking clearly about that particular aspect of the problem. I'm pretty sure that few news organizations or people on the street will refer to this as "H1N1 influenza A," not when they've got a perfectly good, catchy, short, and seemingly easily understandable alternative in "swine flu."

So I propose that the WHO take a page from the computer industry or the hurricane namers, and start giving version numbers/names to major disease outbreaks.

For example, the current flu could be designated "Influenza 2009 A." Or "Flu Pandemic 2.0" (1.0, of course, having been the Spanish flu, a.k.a. "Influenza 1918 A.") Or "WorldFlu XS." Or it could have a catchy code name, like "Flu Wildfire"--part of a natural disasters theme (so the next one might be "Flu Hurricane" or "Flu Earthquake").

2 Responses to “A flu by any other name, or, flu versioning”

  1. Vardibidian

    Well, the problem with Flu Pandemic 2.0 is that there was the Hong Kong Flu of 1968 (which was evidently an H3N2 strain). And since there was very bad flu in February (at least here in Southern New England), this would actually be Influenza 2009 B, which would be confusing since it isn’t actually an Influenza B virus.

    Jon Carroll (of the SF Chronicle) suggested that we call it “banker’s dropsy”, because, heck, bankers are probably to blame somehow, and besides, what good is it to be angry at pigs? He also suggested “vegan death fever”, although my feeling was that “vegan death fever” sounds strangely positive, more like a dance or a drink than a disease. So I’m sticking with banker’s dropsy.


  2. Jed

    I just discovered that way back in 1997, I quoted Elliott Moreton as talking about naming each flu, like hurricanes. I’m embarrassed that I forgot about that and thus neglected to credit Elliott with the idea in this 2009 post.


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