Few languages are so moribund that they are incapable of absorbing new words and phrases into their vocabulary. Globalisation and the universality of technology have meant that many new words have been added to the world’s major languages which are almost exactly the same wherever you live. Why translate ‘software’ or ‘app’ into multiple languages when these words represent technologies that are not unique to any specific language group?
The pandemic that has and still is ravaging the planet, or at least the human part of it, is another good example of global vocabulary. The word ‘virus’ itself is understandable all round the world, even if it is pronounced differently. Like any words associated with communicable diseases, the word only became part of the common lexicon after it was used to describe the tiny pathogens made of a strand of DNA or RNA, wrapped in a protein coat that weren’t actually seen by the human eye until electron microscopes were discovered in the 1930s.
The word ‘Covid-19’ is more of an acronym than a complete word as it is a shortened form of Coronavirus Disease 2019. Before Covid-19 was used to describe the actual sickness caused by the virus, the words ‘coronavirus,’ or ‘novel coronavirus,’ were used. In fact, in the short history of describing and naming viruses, coronaviruses have been discovered to be a family of viruses, many of which are found scattered throughout the animal kingdom and with particularly large numbers in bats. A coronavirus is called that because it looks a bit like a human ‘crown’; with all the little spikes that are seen sticking out from the external surface, used now we know to attach the virus to the host cells it uses to reproduce.
Because there are many different coronaviruses, this one had to be given a name, firstly ‘novel coronavirus’; then SARS-Cov-2, which remains the virus’s medical name. The disease it causes is called Covid-19, often shortened to ‘covid’ in everyday speech. You can be sure that the new word ‘covid’ doesn’t need to be translated anywhere in the world.
Lexicology of a Pandemic
Most of the words used for describing new phenomena since the pandemic began have been in use before, but not so widely. Here are some of those words and terms that have become so familiar over the last few months and unfortunately for humanity look set to be in common use for months to come.
‘Social distancing,’ or as some people prefer to say ‘physical distancing’ is one of the most important health strategies used to combat Covid-19. The theory is that if you keep your distance from other people, you are far less likely to spread the virus which is mainly spread through the air on tiny droplets.
Social distancing is a strategy that is used even after the end of ‘lockdowns.’ A lockdown assumes that people are not allowed to travel around in varying degrees of severity. It doesn’t mean the same as ‘lock up,’ which means ‘imprisonment.’
‘Working from home’ is something that is hardly new, but lockdowns and restrictions on commercial activity necessitated large numbers of employees doing precisely that as much as possible. It’s even got its own acronym ‘WFH.’
The U.S. phrase ‘shelter-in-place’ is new and is the equivalent in other English language countries ‘stay at home’ orders, a rather more polite way of calling the requirement for non –essential movement to be curtailed or a ‘lockdown.’
Everyone has heard of PPE and whether there is enough of it. PPE is a medical term meaning ‘personal protective equipment,’ and certainly not new, but the pandemic has made it a household term.
There have been wild conspiracy theories about the nature of the disease and whether it actually exists at all, helped by the widespread use of social media. The term ‘infodemic’ refers to information spread about the disease and the strategies used to suppress or eliminate it that is itself spread around the internet without being checked for accuracy.
Even Donald Trump has been coining some new vocabulary. There was the controversial “Kung Flu” used at the Tulsa rally, but then does anyone actually listen to ‘covidiots?’