Languages evolve and adapt to new realities and circumstances. The COVID-19 outbreak has not been an exception. Since day one, we saw newly coined words being used across social media, memes, and even mainstream media. In 2020, we witnessed the effects of the pandemic on society and language and we can easily observe various factors that impact language, such as social, cultural and political influences. The coronavirus outbreak and the new words and phrases born out of it will certainly be studied by linguists around the world for many years to come.
English also acts like a living entity and changes over time, constantly adapting to new facts and settings around the world. New words and expressions are constantly added to spoken language and they are called neologisms. Any change in a language goes through two phases: the innovation itself, and then dissemination. Usage and change are two sides of the same coin: speakers change the language as they use it, even though this is not always intentional. There are multiple ways these new terms can be shared, such as in a news story, a blog post, video or a social media post. This leads to other speakers using this same word (neologism). Globalisation and the introduction of neologisms has accelerated in recent years as technology has advanced more rapidly than ever. We’re communicating and creating more content than ever, and our newly coined words and phrases can reach a global audience thanks to the internet and social media.
The COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in many new words and phrases being used – alongside less common words that already existed – which spread almost as fast as the virus. The COVID-19 crisis has arguably made 2020 a year of unprecedented global mass learning. When we first started to talk about the novel coronavirus outbreak that put the city of Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province into global headline news in January 2020, the disease it causes had not even been named yet. Since then, COVID-19 has turned into a global pandemic and the name of the disease has gone from not even existing prior to February 11, 2020 to entering the vocabulary of the vast majority of the world’s eight billion people. Some already existing words and expressions became commonplace during the outbreak, and one interesting discussion that was born out of the pandemic is the different interpretations of the terms “social distancing” and “physical distancing”. While “social distancing” is still widely used, it may be sending the wrong message and contributing to social isolation. Rather than sounding like we must socially isolate ourselves from our family and friends, “physical distancing” simplifies the concept with the emphasis on keeping 6 feet away from others. However, “COVID-19” may well take the crown as the vocabulary item that has entered the linguistic repertoire of the largest number of people in the shortest amount of time. Learning the name of the new disease, has, however, constituted only a small fraction of mass communication related to the pandemic. Almost everyone in the world has had to learn about public health concepts such as “social distancing”, “droplet transmission” or “flattening the curve” to avoid getting sick. Almost everyone has had to understand the specifics of containment measures such as lockdowns, contact tracing, or mask wearing in their jurisdiction. And almost everyone has been exposed to and has had to form a view on often highly divisive public debates weighing health against the economy, linking the virus to particular social groups, or politicising the disease. It is fair to say that never before have so many people globally engaged with the same topic of public communication. Terms related to social isolation existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have become much more common in 2020. Self-isolate, self-isolated and shelter in place all received new citations to illustrate their current usage. In April, even the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary did something unusual. For the previous 20 years, they had issued quarterly updates to announce new words and meanings selected for inclusion. These updates have typically been made available in March, June, September and December. In the late spring, however, and again in July, the dictionary’s editors released special updates, citing a need to document the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the English language. Although the editors have documented many coronavirus-related linguistic shifts, some of their observations are surprising. They claim, for example, that the pandemic has produced only one truly new word: the acronym COVID-19. Certain regional differences are also emerging in COVID-19 language. “COVID” is dominant in the U.S., Canada and Australia, while “Covid” is more common in the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. Because the Oxford English Dictionary is edited and published in England, British forms take precedence: in the online dictionary, it appears under the headword Covid-19. Self-isolate has been the preferred term in British English, whereas self-quarantine is more commonly employed in the U.S.
Earlier health crises also spawned new acronyms and terminology. Nearly 40 years ago, the terms AIDS and HIV entered the language. However, they did not appear in the dictionary until the second edition was published at the end of the 1980s. By releasing updates online, the editors can track language changes as they occur in near real time, and the arbiters of the English language no longer have to play catch-up. Most of the coronavirus-related changes that the editors have noted have to do with older, more obscure words and phrases being catapulted into common usage, such as reproduction number and social distancing. They have also documented the creation of new word blends based on previously existing vocabulary. Some terms have seen a shift in meaning. Originally, sheltering in place referred to seeking safety during a circumscribed event, like a tornado or an active shooter attack. It is now being used to refer to a prolonged period of social isolation. Similarly, elbow bump has evolved from a gesture akin to a high-five, as documented in 1981, to its present form: a safe way to greet another person.
We have no way of knowing which of these neologisms will stay with us and which ones will fade into oblivion as soon as we get effective treatments, and the pandemic is over. We can only find this out with time. Meanwhile, make sure you stay safe and practice physical distancing, not social distancing.
Author: Miruna Munteanu – Project Manager, Senior Translator & Proofreader
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