Language—the most important aspect of human existence— is never static; it is very dynamic. As such, the world’s major events and occurrences impact language significantly. They change vocabulary usage in our day-to-day communication. With the onslaught of Covid-19 on almost all aspects of human life, language is not an exception.
And so is the English language. With over 1.35 billion speakers worldwide and over 800 million speakers in Asia, English is one of the languages bearing the imprint of the global Covid-19 pandemic. As a principal language used in business and many formal settings globally, the world experienced a remarkable shift in commonly used terms. Also, English has been the main medium for international communication during the pandemic.
The vocabulary arising from this unprecedented public health crisis includes new coinage and a plethora of medical terms, phrases, acronyms, abbreviations, and collocations. This even led to the editors of the Oxford English dictionary moving from regular quarterly updates to monthly updates to keep pace with the evolving language use and enormous change in the daily vocabulary.
Without a doubt, we have also seen novel nuances being attached to some of the old words to describe our predicaments, fears, griefs, uncertainty, and more. Based on historical facts, major events like wars and natural disasters have proven to impact language significantly.
And therefore, the Researchers at Michigan State University and other English language research institutions believe the Covid-19 pandemic too will change the way we communicate and bring new additions to the English dictionaries.
Change on Commonly Used English Terms
From casual conversations, media reports to written communication since early-2020, many obscure terms, phrases, and abbreviations have been used to convey the intended information effectively. However, not every uncommon word used during the pandemic is new. Some words or phrases existed before but came into use during the Covid-19 pandemic, while others are clones of the already existing vocabulary.
As the pandemic spread from Asia to other parts of the world, the Oxford English Dictionary and other online dictionaries editors noticed an epic spike in the search volume of many pandemic-related terms on word lookup. But in most cases, the readers could not get the meaning of such words in English.
In their analysis, the researchers noted that keywords such as infection, vaccine, immune, symptoms, virus, swabs, droplets, and testing had become part of the basic vocabulary for many English speakers worldwide from the time the deadly virus was reported.
Let’s break it down.
In January 2020, the researchers discovered most of the words that had high search volumes were related to the name of the novel Coronavirus. Such words included SARS, Coronavirus, virus, respiratory, human-to-human, and flu-like.
In February 2020, terms like Covid 19, COVID 19, self-quarantine, quarantine, pandemic, epicentre, self-isolate, and other words describing the flow of the virus became more common.
From March 2020 onwards, words such as lockdown, social distancing, self-quarantine, self-isolation, non-essential, postpone, WFH (work from home), PPE, workers, frontline warriors, and ventilator became more frequent when referring to the issues surrounding medical responses to the global pandemic.
Some words such as keyworkers, support bubbles, and circuit-breaker were commonly used while referring to the flow of the disease.
Old Words, New Meanings
Researchers noted that some English words have received new meanings. Such terms include self-isolation,first recorded in 1834, and self-isolating recorded in 1841.
While these two words were initially applied to countries detaching from the world, they’re used in the pandemic to refer to self-imposed isolation. Self-isolate is much preferred in British English, while self-quarantine is commonly used in the U.S.
Social distance, the term first used in 1957 to mean a deliberate attempt to keep distance from others socially, has been applied to keeping physical distance from others to avoid infection. Also, elbow bumps have been swayed from meaning a celebratory gesture to avoiding hand-touching when greeting each other.
Bubble, which previously described an insular set of ideas such as ideological bubble or political bubble, has also been put into a new use during the pandemic. Currently, ‘bubble’ refers to a small group or family that avoids contact with others. ‘Travel bubble’ refers to exclusive travel between two or more countries that are relatively more successful in handling the pandemic.
But that’s not all. Lockdown, which was initially related to security and crime, is currently used to refer to a temporary condition imposed by concerned governmental authorities requiring people to stay in their homes during a disease outbreak.
Old Words Blended to Form New Words
Most of the new pandemic-related terms are clones of the existing ones. Such words include:
- Maskne: Acne outbreak caused by using face masks
- Zoombombing: The act of strangers breaking into a video meeting
- Covidiot: Someone who keeps ignoring public safety guidelines
- Quarantini: A cocktail usually consumed by those in quarantine
- Doomscrolling: The act of skimming anxiety-inducing Coronavirus-related stories
While these words are common during the pandemic, it is not apparent whether they will remain in communication after the pandemic.
COVID 19 or Covid 19?
Wondering which is correct? Well, it depends on your geographical location. According to dictionary editors, the word has a regional variation. “Covid” is more prevalent in the U.K., New Zealand, Ireland, and South Africa, whereas “COVID” is the most common version in U.S., Australia, and Canada. Asian countries vary in the use of “Covid”/“COVID”, with India preferring the terms “Coronavirus” and “Corona”.
Meanwhile, the British version of “Covid” is what you’re likely to get in Oxford English Dictionary since it’s edited and published in England. Also, many news outlets prefer using “Covid-19″ on their online news platforms and print magazines.
Regardless of how COVID-19 is written, one thing we know for sure—it has brought into our lives new words and new meanings. Only time will tell when this pandemic (and with it, its influence on the English language) will subside.