As a Certified Translator and Linguist, and like most professionals in my field, I am fascinated by the evolution of words! In addition to being my main occupational tool, words are powerful, energetic and ever-changing. They provide us with insights into concepts from our historical pasts, as well as those of our present and future.
Indeed, the COVID-19 crisis and all of the subsequent changes to the ways we work and live, have generated an array of new words and terms in the year 2020. It’s no surprise that Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2020 is Pandemic, which it defines as “…1: an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area (such as multiple countries or continents) and typically affects a significant proportion of the population: a pandemic outbreak of a disease.” (See this link for other definitions of the word Pandemic: Pandemic | Definition of Pandemic by Merriam-Webster (merriam-webster.com)
Merriam-Webster’s website reports a spike in online dictionary lookups for pandemic as of “…February 3rd, the same day that the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. was released from a Seattle hospital. That day, pandemic was looked up 1,621% more than it had been a year previous, but close inspection of the dictionary data shows that searches for the word had begun to tick up consistently starting on January 20th, the date of the first positive case in the U.S.” (merriam-webster.com)
Despite its honourable ranking, pandemic is by no means a new concept. Looking back to pandemicsof the past, the Spanish flu pandemic that devasted the world from 1918-1920 is another highly-searched online item, and many new posts and articles have been published drawing comparisons between lessons and actions of the past and present. The Spanish flu in itself is a curious and misleading term, as it was developed in reference to one of the first regional outbreaks that attracted widespread media attention, and not the epidemic’s actual origin. Internationally, the virus had other names: in Senegal it was “the Brazilian flu,” in Brazil it was called “the German flu,” while in Poland it was known as “the Bolshevik disease.” (Source: Spanish flu – Wikipedia)
Although tracking technology, the internet and even automatic dialling in telephones did not exist in 1918, many lines can be drawn between the pandemics of then and now: Schools and public houses were ordered closed; quarantines affected people’s employment and livelihoods, not to mention social and family lives; the now-common term social distancing was not yet used in 1918, but it was certainly practiced. Unfortunately, it is estimated that a third of all people worldwide eventually caught the H1N1 virus that caused the 1918 pandemic and that 50 million died from it. How the phone failed to make the Spanish flu crisis bearable (fastcompany.com))
Hopefully, this last point is where we will not be able to draw a comparison, since modern science and technology have also allowed scientists to identify and study the virus, and to develop vaccines much more rapidly than was even imaginable a century ago. In less than one year since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, we now find ourselves eagerly and anxiously waiting for the new vaccines to be approved for public application.
Etymologically speaking, the scientific response to COVID-19, according to Merriam-Webster, has thrown many terms previously used mainly by medical researchers into the general vocabulary. These include:
- Epidemic curve: a visual representation in the form of a graph or chart depicting the onset and progression of an outbreak of disease and especially infectious disease in a particular population.
- Immune surveillance: any monitoring process of the immune system that detects and destroys foreign substances, cells, or tissues.
- Community immunity and herd immunity: a reduction in the risk of infection with a specific communicable disease (such as measles or influenza) that occurs when a significant proportion of the population has become immune to infection (as because of previous exposure or vaccination) so that susceptible individuals are much less likely to come in contact with infected individuals.
In terms of more daily usage, I think you’ll likely be familiar with a few other Coronavirus-related terms that M-W has officially designated as new words and terms:
- Self-isolate: to isolate or separate oneself or itself from others.
- Physical distancing: the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical space between oneself and other people or of avoiding direct contact with people or objects in public places during the outbreak of a contagious disease in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection. A few months ago, terms like these might have seemed too self-explanatory to require definitions, but now there is an immediate and important specificity to them.
- Contactless: not involving contact. Similarly, both the physical and technological meanings of contactless are being used much more frequently.
- WFH: an abbreviation for “working from home.”
- PPE: an abbreviation for “personal protective equipment.”
- Forehead thermometer: a thermometer that is placed on, passed over, or pointed at the forehead to measure a person’s body temperature.
Hopefully most of these words and terms become expressions of the past, and we do not have to see or hear them so much in the media and on the internet. Ironically, that will depend on how well we, as a society, actually perform most of those very actions, such as self-isolation, physical distancing, working from home and using personal protective equipment.
I hope you will join me in this quest to decrease the usage of these expressions, and eradicate the COVID-19 virus!
Stay safe, wear a mask, and practice physical distancing!