Smallpox is, or was, a very virulent disease, so why is it a 'small' pox? I discovered the answer when watching a recent Jeremy Paxman documentary on the Victorians (available on YouTube, see here), and have checked in dictionaries. Smallpox was originally referred to as the pox, but then, when syphilis, another pox, spread like wildfire throughout Europe in the 1600s, the diseases were distinguished by the names smallpox and the great pox. The pustules that appeared on the body of smallpox sufferers were far smaller than syphilis lesions, which probably explains the name. The name syphilis comes from the name of a shepherd in a 1530 poem by the Italian physician and poet Girolamo Fracastoro, the shepherd being a sufferer of the disease. However, the name syphilis only gained widespread currency throughout the world in the 19th century. The full title of Fracastoro's poem is Syphilis, sive Morbus Gallicus (Syphilis, or the French disease). The first recorded outbreak of syphilis in Europe occurred in 1494-5 in Naples, and it was believed to have been spread by French troops, hence the fact that the Italians, the English and many other people referred to it as the French disease or the French pox. There were lots of different names for syphilis, with countries usually blaming it on their enemy. The French called it 'the disease of Naples' and also la maladie anglaise; for the English, as well as it being the French disease it was also the Spanish pox. The Poles called it the German disease. The Russians called it the Polish disease, and so on. The OED also has the synonym Scottish fleas, used by the English. The aforementioned TV documentary contained specimens and models showing the awful symptoms of syphilis, which used to be on show in the old Liverpool Anatomy Museum. The museum is no more, but you can look at the original catalogue here, which is a fascinating read.