The first thing you need to know is that, though often used to describe any old widespread bad thing, the plague is actually a specific family of diseases caused by a bacterium with a pretty name, Yersinia Pestis, who was also a villain in the Harry Potter books.
Obviously (you might say to your friends around the water cooler, speaking through your little paper mask) the Bubonic plague is the most notorious of yersinia pestis’ children, killing off fully a third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1353, earning its own pandemic nickname, the Black Death. It was said to have originated in the Gobi Desert and spread along trade routes on flea-ridden rats. If you have giant swollen “buboes” in your lymph system (neck, armpits, groin), you should see a doctor, because you have the plague. But don’t freak out (unless you’re reading this in an isolated corner of the Third World) — antibiotics can handle the plague.
Notable in pop culture: Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague, is one of many artworks to use infectious disease as a metaphor for political paranoia and the spread of fascism. One day we hope to write a book that uses the spread of fascism as a metaphor for a pandemic disease.
You might also know it as “jail fever,” “camp fever,” “ship fever”… basically you could just call it “holy crap this place I am in is dirty, crowded and unpleasant” fever. Whatever you do, don’t call it “typhoid fever” because that is a completely different disease and if you mistake the two you will look like an idiot. Typhus is a parasitic bacteria most commonly spread by lice, and first showed up in 15th-century Spain when the unhygienic Christians lost nearly 20,000 men to feverish delirium in the middle of a war with the Moors, proving once and for all that God is, in fact, Muslim (or at least a neat freak).
Notable in pop culture: Well, insofar as a typhus outbreak was a key factor in Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812, Crime and Punishment might have been written in French, which wouldn’t have worked.
Cholera got its first big break in India, where traveling pilgrims served as perfect carriers for this very painful, very deadly version of gastroenteritis (no need to go into the specifics, which are gross). Beginning in 1816, the disease spread across the subcontinent and into the Far East, killing tens of thousands of British troops and hundreds of thousands of Indians in the first few years. By 1860, nearly 15 million Indians were dead.
It may just be the scariest of all the scary diseases as it has been known to move from initial symptoms to death in just three hours (bearing in mind that initial symptoms are really just things like a sore tummy).
Notable in pop culture: Somerset Maugham’s recently adapted novel, The Painted Veil, uses a cholera epidemic as an existential goad for a failing, emotionally dead English couple working in China. You see, people, if death is near, life is worth living!