I thought "plague" was a generic word for a disease. I was corrected earlier when talking about COVID that it is a virus not a plague. I am aware it is a virus. But would it be wrong to say "We live in a time of plague" or something similar?

  • 7
    It's a matter of opinion. Note that most "professionals" wouldn't call Covid 19 a "plague", simply because they normally reserve that term for disease outbreaks that kill over 10% of the population (Covid mortality is almost certainly well under 5% across the whole population). But that's a matter of mortality, not the virus/bacteria distinction (which so far as I know is completely irrelevant to the word "plague"). Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 17:19
  • 9
    A plague of locusts. He was plagued by the media. Commented Mar 27, 2020 at 17:43
  • 4
    "I am aware it is a virus." – Just to be clear, COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus. The current "official" name of the virus is SARS-CoV-2, although there is some controversy around that name and some people prefer 2019-nCoV. Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 9:49
  • 3
    It's completely, totally normal to use "plague" to mean basically "a lot of something" (usually a negative thing). Plague of locusts, plague of spam mail, plague of relatives visiting, etc.
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 19:04
  • 1
    According to every dictionary I can find, "plague" can be used to describe COVID. Not even sure why this is a question if the answer can be deduced by reading a dictionary. You should tell whoever corrected you to pick one up. Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 12:14

4 Answers 4


"Plague" can have several different meanings depending on context:

In its most technical form, "plague" is used to refer specifically to diseases caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis (e.g. "bubonic plague", "pneumonic plague", etc). This has historically also been known by names such as "the black death", etc. In this sense, COVID-19 is definitely not a form of "plague", because it is not caused by that bacterium (it is not caused by bacteria at all, as it is a viral disease).

In a more general sense, "plague" is sometimes used to refer to any disease which is widespread and has a fairly high mortality rate. In this sense, COVID-19 could potentially be considered "a plague", except that its mortality rate is still relatively low compared to most other things that have been called "plagues" in the past, so most people probably wouldn't consider it to meet the criteria (at least not yet).

In a looser, often joking way, some people will refer to any widespread disease currently going around (such as a flu) as "the plague". This use is not generally intended to be taken literally but is just a form of hyperbole.

Occasionally, "plague" is also just used as a general synonym for "widespread disease", but this is generally only used in a literary or highly metaphorical context. In this sense, you could actually say "We are living in a time of plague" to mean simply "We are living in a time of widespread disease" (without really talking about COVID-19 specifically, though it may be implied).

(It's worth noting here that I've only covered senses of the word "plague" that have to do specifically with diseases. The word does have other meanings as well, which are not necessarily tied to disease (e.g. "a plague of locusts"), but in the context of the original question, I believe these are the relevant ones.)

  • 1
    @Fattie: the senses in the answer are all fine — what your example shows is that there are further senses still beyond these, figurative senses beyond literal disease.
    – PLL
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 19:35
  • 2
    Perhaps worth mentioning that figurative (non-disease) usage is generally of the form "plague of <something>". For example "My mailbox has been flooded with spam, I hate this plague" is not typical usage in my experience. You might say "My mailbox has been suffering from a plague of spam". See also Will's answer with the verb form "plagued with <something>". Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 4:17
  • 2
    @PeterCordes - So you've never been plagued by robo-calls?
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 22:47
  • 1
    @KeizerHarm: that would be an exception to the "generally" (i.e. "almost always") in my first comment. Glad I didn't say "always" - I think I did initially type it that way, but decided against making an absolute claim. Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 8:38
  • 1
    I disagree with omitting the non-disease sense here as it very much counters your "covid-19 has a low mortality rate and isn't really a plague" argument. It doesn't need to kill to be a plague. A plague of any not-specifically-Yersinia-pestis kind is defined as something that is persistent, abundant, and undesired. A plague of locusts fits that bill just as well as when you refer to a not-specifically-Yersinia-pestis disease as being a "plague", which is the precise case for covid-19.
    – Flater
    Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 15:09

A plague is a general term for an outbreak of a virulent disease. Or even more generally, any outbreak of something unpleasant.

For centuries smallpox was one of the world's most-dreaded plagues, killing as many as 30 percent of its victims.

A plague of flies descended on a Russian village after farmers used chickens droppings as fertiliser.

The word has a biblical origin, being used in the Latin bible to translate the Hebrew word for the afflictions that God sent to Egypt at the time of Moses. (The ten plagues of Egypt)

But plague is also the name of a particular disease, caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. It was the cause of the black death in Eurasia and North Africa. (note that plague killed about 60% of victims)

Plague can be treated by antibiotics.


Yes, you can use plague as a “general” term.

It is also usable (as The plague) to refer to the particular disease as noted already.

Without the the, it means anything that (a) afflicts, (b) besets and (c) in general is a nuisance i.e. irritating, persistent, and / or widespread.

It's often found in compound terms, such as [place] was plagued with [pest] (e.g. Seventeenth Century London, rats; Westminster, politicians — or if you are a politician, then you might say it's plagued with journalists, civil servants and other people asking awkward questions, or possibly giving awkward answers).

  • the best answer here
    – Fattie
    Commented Mar 28, 2020 at 19:05
  • "Plague" in the narrow sense is also used without an article, and "the plague" might refer to, for example, "The plague of locusts".
    – James K
    Commented Mar 29, 2020 at 16:35
  • 1
    "plagued with [pest]" - heh.
    – CodeCaster
    Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 9:09
  • OMG I agree with Fattie... what's wrong with the world?
    – barbecue
    Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 23:26

Not every disease is a plague, if that's what you were thinking.

From Merriam Webster:

Plague definition 2.a: an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality

So according to Merriam Webster, the disease has to be an epidemic and it has to cause a high rate of mortality

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .