Language of a pandemic

So ‘Covid’ and ‘Coronavirus’ are in the dictionary. In April and in July 2020, Oxford English Dictionary editors, for instance, released dedicated updates in response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the English language. Notes on a webinar by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) discussed ‘what is interesting about the new terms about Covid-19?’, responding that ‘ … as lexicographers it is fascinating to witness the uptake of words in such a short period of time. Even though many of the words we included were not new, they had certainly come to prominence as a result of the current pandemic and now inform so many of our conversations.’

It is not unprecedented but it is relatively unusual to see medical terms in the mainstream dictionary. Exceptions are, of course, when these words fall into common use.  

Reported by the BBC, senior editor of OED Fiona McPherson noted that in December 2019, ‘coronavirus’ appeared only 0.03 times per million tokens (i.e. the smallest units of language collected and tracked in the OED corpus), though the term dates back to the 1960. The full phrase ‘Covid-19’ was only coined in February 2020, following a WHO announced the official name of the virus. Yet April 2020, ‘Covid-19’ and ‘coronavirus’ had skyrocketed to about 1,750 per million tokens.

In a recent article in The UK’s Guardian newspaper, Professor Timothy Garton Ash observed that ‘Our children have become babyzoomers. “You’re on mute!” is the most frequently heard sentence of our time. Face masks and 2-metre distancing from other human beings seem almost normal. Our languages have acquired a whole new imagery: “second wave”, “flattening the curve”, “herd immunity”, “the British variant.

Well, I had not, personally, heard the term ‘babyzoomer’ before. However, it is entirely manifest that certain words and phrases, whilst not all neologisms, have become far more popular in use. And in many instances, long-standing words have changed in their shade of meaning.

New words for old…

‘Furlough’ is a good example here in UK. It’s not a new word – its been used since the early 18th-century to describe ‘granting leave of absence’ in the military, apparently borrowed from the Dutch vorloffe. And I believe its long been popularly used in the USA in the workplace. But it had not been frequently used in UK until the government ‘furlough’ (i.e. pay contribution) scheme last year. ‘Social distancing’ has also taken on a very different, far more specific, nuance.

How permanent the impact on language will be remains to be seen, of course. I just hope that Covid-19 is not at pandemic levels long enough for ‘maskne’ (acne caused by wearing a mask), ‘covidiot’ (individual wilfully ignoring Covid rules),  or slang terms such as ‘rona or covey to hit the dictionary pages. Or perhaps it’s too late…

Language evolution is constant, as we know. It’s simply that this past year, extraordinary in so many ways, has been particularly fast-moving. Inevitably, social media is part of this, spreading new words through news reports, posts, and opinions. We were already accustomed to this thanks to terms such as ‘Brexit’ (entering the OED in 2016 and named by Collins as ‘the word of the year!). Brexit was coined by political advisor Peter Wilding and gave rise to events being labelled ‘Grexit’, ‘Megxit’, etc. ever since. In fact, portmanteau words have been especially popular of late (podcast, mansplaining, chillax, infodemic, etc.) Old concepts given a 21st-century update.

In the words of author Peter Høeg, ‘The perception of time and language are inextricably bound up with one another.’

In writing historical fiction, language needs to be used thoughtfully in order to call forth a particular period. It’s easy to get it wrong. In the 14th century , for example, Bubonic plague was termed the ‘Great Mortality’ or ‘Great Death’. Yet the term ‘Black Death’ was a later use in English, introduced in the 18th century by Elizabeth Penrose’s History of England, probably a translation of the Danish Den Sorte Død.

Novelist Georgette Heyer, who pretty much invented the Regency period romance novel in the 20th century, collected a lot of authentic colloquialisms to inform Regency patterns of speech, but also took many liberties and even invented certain uses and terms. Known as ‘Heyerisms’, these terms have been perpetuated by her imitators.

When ‘period fiction’ is written, set in the early part of this decade, which details of language would be used to evoke an authentic sense of time and place?


Image thanks
Main image Photo by CDC from Pexels
Smaller photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

17 thoughts on “Language of a pandemic

  1. My second novel is set in 1950s Chicago. On, the amount of research I’ve done, and am still doing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the research part but it’s hard t know when to stop – when you have enough reliable information. Some people write first research later, but I think getting immersed in some research helps get your head into the time period.

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  2. Pretty interesting. I struggled with what to call this virus when I wrote early articles on my education blog. I settled for COVID-19. I might have to do a find-replace for all of those terms!

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    1. There seemed to be a point that ‘Covid-19’ took over from ‘Coronavirus’ as the term. Let’s hope it’s not dubbed ‘The Great Decimation’ or some such by history!

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  3. I hate to say it, but horrible superfluities such as “all of”, “for free” and “proactive” would represent the first decades of this century. I liked your fascinating article

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    1. These redundant words puzzle me because a lot of language change is about shortening forms, such as contractions – it’s, we’d, etc. I can see that there’s a role for emphasis (‘each and every’, and so on), but not these unnecessary ‘filler’ words. ‘Past history’ is one I see often.

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      1. 🙂 I thought we would be of like minds

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  4. We have a Group Teams meeting every Friday morning AND without exception someone will say “you’re on mute (insert a name)”………. 😀

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    1. ………….I was furloughed for three months and here’s me assuming it was a new word!

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    2. I keep being sure that person will not be me – but it still happens!

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  5. Anyone who has been in a coma or on a desert island for the past year would think they had arrived in an alternative universe.

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    1. So true. At the start there was an abrupt amount of change but since then we’ve been like boiling frogs, not noticing how much change there has been at a slower pace, and having adapted (to some extent!)

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  6. I’d like to write a crime novel set in Covid-2020 times 🙂 because the crimes are still happening. Maybe after alllll lockdowns, quarantines, and mask-hands-disinfection 😱?

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    1. Yes, I was thinking the other day that having large spaces empty (stadia, shopping malls, etc.), mask-wearing being the norm, disinfecting not turning any heads, etc. would lend itself to a lot of criminal opportunity. Looking forward to reading it.

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      1. Agreed, so many crime opportunities 🤓🤨

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  7. Your end question makes me believe that it is important to chronicle these terms, as the dictionary has done. Maybe it is important for history’s sake to know, exactly how we were naming things and why. Babyzoomer is hilarious to me. I think that’s what the generation should be alternately called.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙂 Yes, as a Gen-Xer, perhaps we middle-aged folk should be renamed that given the number of online meetings we’re in. I agree we need to capture the language of the day; interesting to see how it develops. Having got my first-round vaccine a few days ago, I am now acquainted with ‘Covid arm’!

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