I thought I had caught The Times out this morning. “Yawners aren’t bored, they’re just empathising” was the headline and it came on the page after a photograph of Boris Johnson apparently empathising away like mad on a bus (he may have been talking, or gargling, or singing, but it looked like yawning to me).
The article suggests that those who start yawning because others are doing so “have particularly high empathy for the emotions of others”. That’s good. I thought it was just rudeness, and since I am prone to it myself in meetings, it is a comfort to know that it reflects fellow-feeling rather than the time I went to bed last night.
It was not the tenor of the study which caught my eye – that looked the sort of tosh you get from scientific academics who need something to fill the hours between making grant applications – but the use of the word “contagious” interchangeably with “infectious” to describe the phenomenon of catching yawning from others.
Both words, contagious and infectious, have fairly precise primary meanings and both get used, quite reasonably, for purposes far away from their original medical origins. I had thought, however, that contagious always connoted physical transmission of the illness or whatever – not necessarily direct person-to-person contact, but contact nevertheless. Its origin in the Latin tangere to touch seemed to point in that direction.
Put like that, contagious yawning sounded like a euphemism for French kissing and therefore very different, alas, from what I do in meetings.
I am wrong. The dictionary, even the trusty Concise Oxford which I won as a school prize in 1972, allows a wider application than physical connection. Whilst the literal meaning is as I thought – communicating disease by contact – the words catching and infectious are given as synonyms, albeit figuratively.
So – with whom was Boris empathising on the bus?