What's in a name? Governments debate 'swine flu' versus 'Mexican' flu

• Israeli minister concerned over sensitivities to pork
• Mexican ambassador complains about alternative

With governments around the world struggling to find the appropriate response to the new flu danger, it might be assumed that they had more important things on their mind than what to call the virus. Not so.

Trouble began yesterday when a health minister in Israel raised an objection to "swine flu" on the grounds of Jewish and Muslim sensitivities over pork. Yakov Litzman, a member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, came up with his own alternative: "Mexican flu."

That had the advantage of sparing Jews and Muslims discomfort. It had the disadvantage, however, of causing Mexicans even greater discomfort.

Mexico's ambassador to Israel, Frederico Salas, was duly dispatched to register an official complaint over the suggestion. The move prompted a hurried retraction from the Israeli government, which insisted it had no intention of changing the name.

If the virus is not, after all, to mutate into "Mexican flu", what then is it to be called? Swine flu looks likely to hold for the time being, though as it changes and spreads its connection to pigs will become increasingly tenuous.

The European commission is calling it the "novel flu virus", which as a description is accurate but will also become redundant as time passes.

Which leaves the medical nomenclature as the certain front-runner to become the household reference to the new virus. "Influenza A (H1N1) virus, human".

The label may well catch on. It's snappy, has a ring to it, and most importantly offends precisely no one.

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What's in a name? Governments debate 'swine flu' versus 'Mexican flu'

This article was first published on guardian.co.uk at 18.17 BST on Tuesday 28 April 2009. It was last updated at 18.17 BST on Tuesday 28 April 2009.

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