I was saving valetudinarian, the term for a person unusually anxious about his or her health, for the weekly word feature at baltimoresun.com, but Sunday seemed like a better day for it.
In my parish, the sharing of hand sanitizer, instituted in apprehension of a bad flu season, has become a ritual gesture, like crossing oneself at the benediction. As people line up for Communion, they pause to pump a little sanitizer and rub it in.
Never mind that there is little or no hazard of contracting anything from the bread and wine, or that the exchange of germs has already taken place during the handshakes and hugs at the sign of the peace.* The sanitizer is put out there before Communion, and they use it because they’re used to using it and want to preserve their good health.
Little rituals like this are the stuff of the valetudinarian’s life. As an example, you may recall old Mr. Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma, whose querulous concern about even a light fall of snow and the danger of contracting a chill mark him as the type. You can distinguish a valetudinarian from a hypochondriac; the latter imagines himself to have an illness, while the former is apprehensive about contracting one.
As we boomers age, you can expect the see the valetudinarian population multiply, given our self-regard, our obsessive consumption of vitamins and other nutritional supplements,** and our expectation that we can evade the common fate of humanity.
The word valetudinarian shows that language can display a nice sense of irony. It derives from the Latin valetudo, health, and valere, “be well.” Do put a sweater on. It’s only in the low 50s in Baltimore today, spring not quite having arrived, and you don’t want to catch your death.
*A word to those who intinct—that is, dip the bread into the wine instead of drinking from the cup. People’s hands are dirtier than their mouths; if you prefer intinction out of sanitary concerns, you are misguided. Even if you use the sanitizer.
**Americans, my biology major roommate used to say, have the most expensive urine in the world.