What Does ‘Cabin Fever’ Mean? Plus Other Fever Words
By Samantha Enslen, Quick and Dirty Tips
We come to you in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the symptoms of COVID-19 is a fever, and that got us thinking about the word fever and the different phrases that use it.
After a bit of noodling around, here’s what we learned.
The Origin of the Word Fever.
The word fever comes from the classical Latin febris. It’s also related to the Latin word fovēre, meaning “to heat,” and the ancient Greek τέϕρα (pronounced tephra), meaning “ash.”
Fever originally related to heat.
The first time it was printed was in an Old English herbarium—a book describing how to use herbs as medicine. The author said that people who have a “fefer” should “wyrte wel drincan on wætere”—that is, drink lots of water brewed with plants from the wort family, like spiderwort or St. John’s wort.
The Meaning of Fever Gets Extended.
By the 1300s, we see the use of the word expand. It starts to also mean a state of nervous excitement or agitation. We see phrases like “a fever of jealousy” and “a fever of the soul.” We still use that meaning today—you’ll know that if you’ve ever had “a fever for the flavor of a Pringle.” (For those of you too young to recognize that jingle, it’s from an iconic 1980s ad for those flattened, processed potato chips known as Pringles.)
Fever also paired up with various modifiers over time. These phrases referred to an intense enthusiasm that usually burned out quickly.
For example, in the 1600s, “tulip fever” broke out in the Netherlands. These bulbs began to be imported from the Ottoman Empire, and prices for them skyrocketed.
In the 1760s, when the Seven Years’ War raged between Great Britain and France, British fanatics were said to have “war-fever.”
In 1848, the discovery of gold in California sparked a “gold fever”—a mass migration of miners into California’s goldfields. By 1855, more than 300,000 people had moved into the state.
And of course, in the 1970s, many of us had the most embarrassing fever of all—disco fever. Admit it—many of you probably wore gold lame and bell-bottoms, and danced your heart out to songs like “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees and “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer.
Those were the days.
Fever Phrases: Cabin Fever, Fever Dream, Fever Pitch
Fever has also become part of some standard phrases we use.
There’s “cabin fever,” the restlessness and irritation that comes from being cooped up too long in a small space. (Perhaps needless to say, many of us are feeling that right now.) The term appeared in the American West in the early 1900s, probably because of settlers being trapped in literal cabins for weeks on end during the heavy winters that hit states like South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.
There are also “fever dreams.” These are the bizarre, hallucinogenic dreams that can come when you have a high fever. If you’ve ever seen the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 movie Spellbound, you get a sense of what a fever dream might be like.
“Fever dreams” can also refer to any outlandish ideas. If a friend told you she’d quit her job, bought a horse, and decided to bring transportation via carriage back into fashion, you might say she was having a fever dream.
Finally, there’s the expression “fever pitch,” which refers to a state of intense excitement. In 2019, when the Washington Nationals were competing for their first-ever World Series trophy, you could say that “baseball fever” in Washington had reached a fever pitch. Or in 2016, when LeBron James brought the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals, excitement in Cleveland was definitely at a fever pitch.
Why Do You Catch a Cold, But Run a Fever?
One final topic for today. Why do you catch a cold, but run a fever?
Catching a Cold
“To catch a cold” is an idiom. It first appeared in the 16th century, and originally meant to literally become chilled by exposure to cold weather. By the late 1600s, it took on the meaning we use today: to become infected by a cold virus.
Until recently, the phrase was shorter: “to catch cold” was more common than “to catch a cold.” And there’s also a darker version of this phrase: “to catch your death of cold.” This phrase was likely a favorite of parents warning their children to dress warmly: “put on a hat if you’re going outside, or you’ll catch your death of cold!”
Running a Fever
The phrase “to run a fever” is also an idiom. It uses the word “run” in the sense meaning “to cause, or to move.” You can see a similar usage in the phrase “run amok,” meaning to move in a frenzied, out-of-control way.
In this case, one’s temperature is moving upward; thus, one “runs” a fever.
That’s our rundown on fever-related idioms. I wish everyone good health—and I am sending warm wishes that “cabin fever” isn’t hitting you too hard.
Ammer, Christine. Catch a cold, run a fever. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.
Boissoneault, Lorraine. There Never Was a Real Tulip Fever. Smithsonian Magazine, September 18, 2017.
Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Gold fever, Seven Years’ War (subscription required, accessed April 20, 2020).
Merriam-Webster. A Retrospect of Words From 1918 (accessed April 20, 2020).
Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Fever, cabin fever (subscription required, accessed April 20, 2020).
A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as What Does ‘Cabin Fever’ Mean? Plus Other ‘Fever’ Words. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.
About the Author
Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.