How COVID-19 is changing the English language



The coronavirus forced the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary to break with tradition.
Illustration by Anurag Papolu/The Conversation; dictionary photo by Spauln via Getty Images and model of COVID-19 by fpm/iStock via Getty Images , CC BY-SA

Roger J. Kreuz, University of Memphis

In April, 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.

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’ve also documented the creation of new word blends based on previously existing vocabulary.

The dictionary of record

The Oxford English Dictionary aspires to be the most extensive and complete record of the language and its history.

In 1884, parts of the first edition were released. It wasn’t completed until 1928. Over the ensuing years, additional volumes of new words were published to supplement the first edition, and these were integrated into a second edition that appeared in 1989. This is the version you’ll find in most libraries. A digital release, on CD-ROM, followed in 1992.

In March 2000, the dictionary launched an online version. For this new edition, the editors have been revising definitions dating from the first edition that are, in many cases, over a century old. Due to its size, this third edition will not appear in printed form, and these revisions may not be completed until 2034.

At the same time, the editors continue to document the language as it grows, changes and evolves. The quarterly updates provide a list of new words and revisions. The September update, for example, includes “craftivist” and “Cookie Monster.”

Something old, something new

The special, coronavirus-related updates give us a glimpse into how language can quickly change in the face of unprecedented social and economic disruption. For example, one of the effects of the pandemic is that it’s brought previously obscure medical terms to the forefront of everyday speech.

Traditionally, dictionary editors include scientific and technical terms only if they achieve some degree of currency outside of their disciplines. This is the case for the names of drugs, since there are many thousands of these. For example, you’ll see Ritalin and Oxycontin in the dictionary, but you won’t see Aripiprazole.

However, the pandemic has seen at least two drug names jump into public discourse.

Hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment touted by some as a magic bullet against the virus, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in July, although the drug’s name had appeared in print as early as 1951.

Another newly famous drug is dexamethasone, a corticosteroid that has reduced the COVID-19 death rate. It appeared in print as early as 1958 and was included in the dictionary’s second edition. In the July update, the editors provided a quotation illustrating the drug’s current use to combat the coronavirus.

The updates also include new citations for such terms as community transmission, which dates to 1959, and community spread, which was first documented in print in 1903.

The language of quarantining

Terms related to social isolation existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’ve become much more common in 2020.

Self-isolate, self-isolated and shelter in place all received new citations to illustrate their current usage.

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’s 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.

Some regional differences are also emerging in COVID-19 language. Self-isolate has been the preferred term in British English, whereas self-quarantine is more commonly employed in the U.S. “Rona” or “the rona” as slang for coronavirus has been observed in the U.S. and Australia, but the dictionary editors haven’t documented wide enough usage to warrant its inclusion.

On the watch list

A perennial issue for lexicographers is deciding whether or not a term has enough staying power to be enshrined in the dictionary. The COVID-19 pandemic has produced its fair share of new terms that are blends of other words, and many of these are on the editors’ watch list. They include “maskne,” an acne outbreak caused by facial coverings; “zoombombing,” which is when strangers intrude on video conferences; and “quarantini,” a cocktail consumed in isolation.

Other new blends include “covidiot,” for someone who ignores public safety recommendations; “doomscrolling,” which happens when you skim anxiety-inducing pandemic-related stories on your smartphone; and the German term “hamsterkauf,” or panic buying. Whether such terms will be in common usage after the pandemic is anyone’s guess.

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‘COVID’ or ‘Covid’?

And what of COVID-19 itself?

According to the dictionary’s editors, it first appeared in a Feb. 11 World Health Organization situation report as shorthand for “coronavirus disease 2019.”

But should it be written as COVID-19 or as Covid-19? The dictionary’s editors report regional differences for this term as well.

“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.

Earlier health crises also spawned new acronyms and terminology. Nearly 40 years ago, the terms AIDS and HIV entered the language. However, they didn’t 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.The Conversation

Roger J. Kreuz, Associate Dean and Professor of Psychology, University of Memphis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Iso’, ‘boomer remover’ and ‘quarantini’: how coronavirus is changing our language



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Kate Burridge, Monash University and Howard Manns, Monash University

People love creating words — in times of crisis it’s a “sick” (in the good sense) way of pulling through.

From childhood, our “linguistic life has been one willingly given over to language play” (in the words of David Crystal). In fact, scientists have recently found learning new words can stimulate exactly those same pleasure circuits in our brain as sex, gambling, drugs and eating (the pleasure-associated region called the ventral striatum).




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We’re leximaniacs at heart and, while the behaviour can occasionally seem dark, we can learn a thing or two by reflecting on those playful coinages that get us through “dicky” times.

Tom, Dick and Miley: in the ‘grippe’ of language play

In the past, hard times birthed playful rhymes. The 1930s Depression gave us playful reduplications based on Australian landmarks and towns – “ain’t no work in Bourke”; “everything’s wrong at Wollongong”; “things are crook at Tallarook”.

Wherever we’re facing the possibility of being “dicky” or “Tom (and) Dick” (rhyming slang for “sick”), we take comfort in language play. It’s one thing to feel “crook”, but it’s another thing again to feel as “crook as Rookwood” (a cemetery in Sydney) or to have a “wog” (synonymous with “bug”, likely from “pollywog”, and unrelated to the ethnic slur “wog”).

Remedies may be found in language’s abilities to translate sores into plasters, to paraphrase William Gouge’s 1631 sermon on the plague. New slang enables us to face our fears head-on — just as when the Parisians began calling a late-18th century influenza “la grippe” to reflect the “seizing” effect it had on people. The word was subsequently taken up in British and American English.

In these times of COVID-19, there are the usual suspects: shortenings like “sanny” (hand sanitizer) and “iso” (isolation), abbreviations like BCV (before corona virus) and WFH (working from home), also compounds “corona moaner” (the whingers) and “zoombombing” (the intrusion into a video conference).

Plenty of nouns have been “verbed” too — the toilet paper/pasta/tinned tomatoes have been “magpied”. Even rhyming slang has made a bit of a comeback with Miley Cyrus lending her name to the virus (already end-clipped to “the Miley”). Some combine more than one process — “the isodesk” (or is that “the isobar”) is where many of us are currently spending our days.

Slanguage in the coronaverse: what’s new?

What is interesting about COVID-lingo is the large number of creations that are blended expressions formed by combining two existing words. The new portmanteau then incorporates meaningful characteristics from both. Newly spawned “coronials” (corona + millennials) has the predicted baby boom in late 2020 already covered.

“Blursday” has been around since at least 2007 but originally described the day spent hung over — it’s now been pressed into service because no one knows what day of the week it is anymore. The official disease name itself, “COVID”, is somewhere between a blend and an acronym because it takes in vowels to make the abbreviation pronounceable (CO from corona, VI from virus and D from disease).

True, we’ve been doing this sort of thing for centuries — “flush” (flash + gush) dates from the 1500s. But it’s never been a terribly significant method of coinage. John Algeo’s study of neologisms over a 50-year period (1941–91) showed blends counting for only 5% of the new words. Tony Thorne’s impressive collection of over 100 COVID-related terms has around 34% blends, and the figure increases to more than 40% if we consider only slang.

Not only have blends become much more common, the nature of the mixing process has changed too. Rather than combining splinters of words, as in “coronials”, most of these corona-inspired mixes combine full words merged with parts of others. The “quarantini” keeps the word “quarantine” intact and follows it with just a hint of “martini” (and for that extra boost to the immune system you can rim the glass with vitamin C powder). Many of these have bubbled up over the past few weeks — “lexit” or “covexit” (the strategies around exiting lockdown and economic hardship), “coronacation” (working from home) and so on.

Humour: from the gallows to quarantimes

Humour emerges as a prevailing feature of these blends, even more so when the overlap is total. In “covidiot” (the one who ignores public health advice and probably hoards toilet paper), both “covid” and “idiot” remain intact. There’s been a flourishing of these types of blend — “covideo party”, “coronapocalypse”, “covidivorce” to name just a few.

Clearly, there is a fair bit of dark comedy in the jokes and memes that abound on the internet, and in many of these coinages too — compounds like “coronacoma” (for the period of shutdown, or that deliciously long quarantine sleep) and “boomer remover” (used by younger generations for the devastation of the baby boomer demographic).




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Callous, heartless, yes. But humour is often used as a means of coming to terms with the less happy aspects of our existence. People use the levity as a way of disarming anxiety and discomfort by downgrading what it is they cannot cope with.

Certainly, gallows humour has always featured large in hospital slang (diagnoses like GOK “God only knows” and PFO “pissed and fell over”). For those who have to deal with dying and death every day, it is perhaps the only way to stay sane. COVID challenges us all to confront the biological limits of our own bodies – and these days humour provides the much-needed societal safety valve.

So what will come of these creations? The vast majority will fall victim to “verbicide”, as slang expressions always do.The Conversation

Kate Burridge, Professor of Linguistics, Monash University and Howard Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Five common words we’re all using incorrectly



Stark naked? Not quite…
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Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

Many people think they know their main language intimately. But there are many words and phrases in English that people often use wrongly. Whether these erroneous uses truly count as “wrong” is up for debate – after all, a mistake that has become widely adopted should really be considered acceptable. But whichever side of this argument you err towards, here are five examples of ones that we are all making.

1. Stark naked

Someone who has no clothes on is widely described as being stark naked. Originally, however, the phrase began as start naked – from the Old English steort, meaning “tail”. The phrase literally meant “naked to the tail”, probably referring to the buttocks.

Although the word steort is not recorded in this sense, tail has often been used in this way – as it still is in the American phrase work your tail off. The word steort fell out of general use around 1300, surviving only in the names of birds like redstart and wagstart (better known today as the wagtail).

The switch from start to stark naked was triggered by start becoming obsolete, combined with an association with stark, meaning “completely”, in phrases such as stark dead, stark blind and stark naught – first recorded in the early 16th century in the savage put-down: “Ye count your selfe wele lettred [educated], your lernyng is starke nought.”

2. Sneeze

The verb to sneeze is imitative in origin – the sound of the word mimics the sound of the thing it names, as with words like drip, fizz, beep and the noise created by a sneeze: atishoo.

But the original form of the word was fnese, along with fneosung (“sneezing”), and fnora (“a sneeze”). The change from fnese to sneeze arose through confusion caused by the way the word appeared in medieval manuscripts.

Medieval handwriting employed several different forms of the letter “s”, including an 8-shaped form, another resembling a kidney bean, the Greek letter sigma and a long form – still found in printed books of the 18th century. This last letter closely resembled the letter “f” and it was confusion between the long “s” and “f” that resulted in fnese being adapted into modern English sneeze.




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3. Gravy

While gravy may seem a quintessentially English sauce, the word is actually French in origin. Gravy was originally grané, meaning “spiced”, from Latin granum “grain”.

The letters “u” and “n” were often indistinguishable in medieval handwriting – both were formed using two single vertical strokes called minims – so that it would be easy for a scribe to misread the word as graue.

While the letters “u” and “v” are distinguished by the sounds they represent today, in medieval English they varied according to position: “v” appeared at the beginnings of words (vntil, “until”) and “u” in the middle (loue, “love”), irrespective of the sound. As a result, the word grané came to be misread as gravy, and this form has been used ever since.

4. Adder

Adder (the snake) goes back to the Old English word nædre; it is one of a small number of English words where the initial “n” has been lost due to confusion over where the boundary falls when following the indefinite article a/an.

As a result of this process, known as metanalysis, a nædre became an adder. The same misapprehension lies behind words like apron (from napron, related to nappe, “tablecloth”) and umpire (originally nonpeer, “no equal”).

The word orange was also formed this way, although in this case – since it is a borrowing into English from French – the mistake had occurred before it was adopted into English. The French orange is itself a borrowing of the Arabic word naranj (the initial “n” is still found in modern Spanish naranja); it was confusion following the indefinite article un that produced the modern form.

Watch your indefinite article.
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5. Cherry

The word cherry originates in the northern French dialect word cherise (a variant of the standard modern French cerise), which was adopted into English after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Because it ended in an “s”, English speakers mistakenly understood it to be a plural form and so the false singular cherry was born. The same process lies behind the word pea, erroneously derived from the singular form pease (ultimately from Greek pison) – preserved in the nursery rhyme “pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold”.

Although these changes took place hundreds of years ago, the process can be observed today in the emergence of bicep: a singular form of biceps. This may seem logical, but biceps is an adoption of a singular Latin noun, from bi- “two” and -ceps “headed”, referring to a muscle with two points of attachment.

The tendency for speakers to associate the “s” ending with plurals has also given rise to erroneous plural forms. Despite phenomena being the plural of Greek phenomenon, the false plural phenomenas is sometimes used. But the error of this type that is most likely to make pedants reach for their red pens is paninis – the supposed plural of Italian panini (singular panino) – a reminder that what is acceptable for some remains anathema for others.The Conversation

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The English language is evolving – here’s how it will change after Brexit


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Emma Seddon, Newcastle University

Britain is facing an uncertain future and an uneasy relationship with Europe after Brexit. Among other things, the country’s woeful inability to learn languages has been raised as a key stumbling block – with the decline in foreign language learning among school and university students across the UK also raising alarm.

English is one of the official languages of the EU, along with 22 others, and also one of the three working languages of its institutions (with German and French). On top this, English is the most commonly taught foreign language in Europe, which is a major factor in why it is the most commonly used working language. Although not everyone is happy about this, including the French EU ambassador who recently walked out of a meeting on the EU budget when the Council decided to use only English translations.

So, even if Britain leaves the EU, English will remain not only an official language –- because of the member status of Malta and Ireland –- but it will likely also remain the principal working language of the EU institutions.

English is also often used globally as a common language between speakers of different languages. In other words, conversations are happening in English that do not involve native English speakers. This, of course, has a long and fraught colonial past – as the British Empire forced English on its colonies. But the decline of the Empire did not mean the decline of English. On the contrary, as the US rose to be a global economic power, globalisation drove the spread of English across the world – and continues to do so. And the European Union is no exception.

‘EU English’

As part of my ongoing PhD research on the translation profession, I interviewed some British translators working at the European Commission. From their perspective, English will remain the principal working language following Brexit, as switching to only French and German, or adding another language would be unrealistic and require a huge investment in training by the EU. Instead, they report that English will continue to be used, and will simply evolve and change in these settings.

So-called “EU speak” is an example of this. Non-native speakers’ use of English is influenced by their native languages, and can result in different phrasing. For example, within the EU institutions, “training” is often used as a countable noun, meaning you can say: “I’ve had three trainings this week”. In British English, however, it is uncountable, meaning you would probably say something like: “I’ve had three training sessions this week”.

This is a minor linguistic point, but it shows how English is changing within the EU institutions due to the influence of non-native speakers. For the time being, native English speaking translators and editors limit the extent of these changes – particularly in documentation intended for the public.

But if Britain leaves the EU, there will be a dramatically reduced pool of native English speakers to recruit from, because you need to have an EU passport to work in the institutions. As people retire, fewer native speakers will work in the EU, meaning they will have less and less influence on and authority over the use of English in these contexts. This means “EU English” will likely move away from British English at a faster pace.

Englishes and linguistic change

Such change is nothing new – especially with English. “Singlish” or Singaporean English has its roots in colonial rule and has since become independent from British English, integrating grammar and vocabulary from languages that reflect Singapore’s immigrant history – including Malay, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Tamil among others. Singlish has developed its own words and expressions out of this hybrid of languages and has evolved and shifted in response to the migrations of peoples and cultures, new technologies and social change.

Only time will tell whether “EU English” will ever move so far from its moorings. But, according to one translator I spoke to, even if Britain were to stay in the EU, English would continue to change within the institutions:

English doesn’t belong to us anymore as Brits, as native speakers, it belongs to everyone.

And the frequent exposure to and use of English in daily life means other language communities are increasingly gaining a sense of ownership over the language.

The ubiquity of English is sometimes touted as a demonstration of the enduring importance of Britain – and the US – on the world stage. From what I have seen researching translation, this assumption in fact shows how complacent English speaking countries have become.

This does not mean the economic, cultural, and military power of these countries should be dismissed. But this doesn’t change the fact that English is used as a common language in interactions that do not involve any of those countries – take, for example, a Slovenian cyclist being interviewed in English by a French journalist about his performance in the Italian cycling event Giro d’Italia.

Linguistic diversity certainly needs to be championed to ensure we do not lose humanity’s great variety of languages and dialects, and some great work is being done on this. Nevertheless, it is clear that English has developed a role distinct from its native speakers as a shared language that facilitates communication in an increasingly globalised world.The Conversation

Emma Seddon, PhD Candidate in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.