With terms such as WFH, social distancing and self-isolation now in common parlance, the Oxford English Dictionary has made an extraordinary update to include Covid-19 and words related to the pandemic in its definitive record of the English language.
The dictionarys executive editor Bernadette Paton said that it was “a rare experience for lexicographers to observe an exponential rise in usage of a single word in a very short period of time, and for that word to come overwhelmingly to dominate global discourse, even to the exclusion of most other topics”. Covid-19 has done that, and has thus been added as a new entry in the OED, where it is described as “an acute respiratory illness in humans caused by a coronavirus, which is capable of producing severe symptoms and death, esp. in the elderly and others with underlying health conditions”.
“As something of a departure, this update comes outside of our usual quarterly publication cycle,” said Paton. “But these are extraordinary times, and OED lexicographers, who like many others are all working from home … are tracking the development of the language of the pandemic and offering a linguistic and historical context to their usage.”
The OEDs analysis of more than 8bn words of online news stories found that coronavirus and Covid-19, a shortening of coronavirus disease 2019, are now dominating global discourse. While back in December, words such as Brexit, impeachment and climate dominated news, by January, coronavirus was seeing significant use alongside current affairs terms such as bushfire, koala, Iraqi, locust and assassination. By March every single word in the OEDs top 20 list of keywords – terms used significantly more frequently that month – was related to coronavirus.
“In January, the words mainly relate to naming and describing the virus: coronavirus, SARS, virus, human-to-human, respiratory, flu-like,” said the OED in an analysis. “By March, the keywords reflect the social impact of the virus, and issues surrounding the medical response: social distancing, self-isolation and self-quarantine, lockdown, non-essential (as in non-essential travel), and postpone are all especially frequent, as are PPE and ventilator.”
The OEDs lexicographers have noticed a rise in the use of specialist medical terms and new acronyms, such as WFH and PPE. The first noted usage of working from home was in 1995, but Paton notes that “the abbreviation was known to very few before it became a way of life for so many of us”. The abbreviation PPE, for personal protective equipment, dates back to 1977 but was “formerly probably restricted to healthcare and emergency professionals”.
Social distancing, first used in 1957, “was originally an attitude rather than a physical term, referring to an aloofness or a deliberate attempt to distance oneself from others socially. Now we all understand it as keeping a physical distance between ourselves and others to avoid infection,” wrote Paton.
Previous pandemics have also given rise to new vocabulary. Usage of “pestilence”, or “a fatal epidemic or disease”, first appears in 1382, not long after the bubonic plague peaked in Europe between 1347 and 1351. The adjective “self-quarantined” was first used in 1878 to describe the actions of the villagers of Eyam in the 17th century, who isolated themselves to prevent the second wave of “Black Death” from spreading to surrounding villages.
“It is a consistent theme of lexicography that great social change brings great linguistic change, and that has never been truer than in this current global crisis,” wrote Paton.