While trying to find a word that describes someone as having a fondness/interest in microbes, I stumbled across this Nature news article in 1893 that utilized the word, "bacillophil" seen below:

A WELL-KNOWN English writer a short time ago informed the public that Prof. von Pettenkofer, the distinguished veteran in sanitary science in Munich, expressed the opinion that "the atmospheric envelope of this globe is at present in a bacillophil humour." Expressions such as these have been repeatedly used in one form or another, some more, some less witty; the intention being, of course, to convey an exagerated impression of the frame of mind of over-zealous enthusiasts. By such expressions more or less distinguished speakers and writers have been enabled to exhibit the smartness of their phraseology.

The issue I have is not being able to clearly understand the humor Pettenkofer expressed in the quoted sentence.

Could a linguist help me understand what the sentence mean in an 1893-context?


side note, it seems that there actually isn't a definitive English word that describes someone as having a significant fondness in microbes--at least not in any dictionaries that I've looked through so far.


Bacteria, their Nature and Function. Nature 48, 82–87 (1893). https://doi.org/10.1038/048082b0

1 Answer 1


As best as I can tell, in this context, humour means 'mood or state of mind' (Lexico). So Prof. von Pettenkofer is using a very convoluted way, with unnecessarily 'big' words, to say that the study of bacteria is 'in', is fashionable, is something many people are obsessed by. The wittiness of the phrase comes from the convoluted phrasing.

  • 1
    Huh, thank you for your answer! I wouldn't have thought of that. I was reading more like a pun, as in, "the air of our world is currently in a bacillo (bacteria)-filled humour (cardinal humor).
    – Lovelace
    Jan 16, 2021 at 5:38
  • @Lovelace That's a clever reading! I can't say I am 100% sure I am right. One circumstance that, I think, makes this less likely to be a pun is that this is likely to be a translation from German. It is of course possible to have a pun in the original German that is then translated into a pun in English, but that is usually hard to do. Finding out the original source for the statement would help us to really be sure. Jan 16, 2021 at 11:35
  • I'm with @Lovelace on this one. The air is presently congenial to germs. Regular old, non-bacillo
    – Phil Sweet
    Jan 16, 2021 at 14:03

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