How Coronavirus gave us a new vocabulary

How Coronavirus gave us a new vocabulary

Dictionary of a disease - how Coronavirus gave us a new vocabulary

Understanding the Coronavirus has proved fiendishly difficult.  The disease, its origins, effects and treatments all remain subject to fierce debate.  Layer on the politics, both national and international, and the subject quickly becomes not just impenetrable but highly charged to boot.  To some extent this confusion extends to the vocabulary around the virus.  Is it Covid-19, novel-coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2?  Different names have done nothing to clarify an already murky subject, but here at least we can shed some light.  Here in the scientific world of virus taxonomy, epidemiology and medicine we can enjoy a bit of certainty, and with a just a bit of digging, some clarity.  Given we are likely to be living with Coronavirus for some time to come we thought it was worthwhile looking into the not just the epidemiology but the etymology of the virus.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2, or more commonly (but not much less of a mouthful) SARS-CoV-2 is the correct scientic term for the virus.  The name was given to the virus by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses on 11 February and described shortly after in this paper from the research journal Nature. The name replaced what had been a provisional name of 2019-nCoV, or  ‘2019-novel Coronavirus’.  As the name suggests, SARS-CoV-2 is named after an earlier virus, SARS-CoV which emerged in 2003, due to their similarity and the fact that both were first reported in the same area of China. More information on SARS-CoV can be found on the World Health Organisation (WHO).

COVID-19 is the name for the disease, rather than the virus.  The name, short for Coronavirus 2019, was laid down by the WHO on 11 February this year. The naming of the disease followed standard procedures laid down by organisation such as WHO, World Organisation for Animal Health and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The use of the date, ie 2019, to describe the disease rather than its place of origin, such as Spanish flu, was part of the internationally agreed protocols for naming diseases.

Coronavirus is a family of viruses that get their name ‘corona’ from their distinctive appearance when viewed under an electron microscope, an appearance that is said to resembled the solar corona, or aura of plasma that surrounds the sun.  The coronavirus family are distinguished by the fact they cause diseases in both animals and humans.  The word was first described in 1968, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Pandemic - there is no specific criteria for when a disease becomes a pandemic.  Instead a pandemic is generally considered to exist when a disease occurs over a wide geographical area in a high proportion of the population.

PPE - there is nothing very new about Personal Protection Equipment. In its various forms it can be dated back to the plague doctors of the sixteenth century, who wore long gowns, gloves and boots to protect themselves from infection.  The phrase itself and now ubiquitous acronym ‘PPE’ is likely to stem from military usage and refer to chemical and biological warfare suits, amongst other things.  In the context of the Coronavirus the phrase most commonly refers to face masks, googles, face visors, gloves, gowns and other common medical devices used to prevent infection.

The impact of these words on how we communicate, explore our worlds and learn was spelt out in some detail a blog produced by the Oxford English Dictionary in April.  An analysis of the frequency of the use of words found that in December last year the word ‘coronavirus’ was barely being used in everyday language.  Covid 19 did not even exist.  Since then the number of times they are being used has increased exponentially, both words being used more than 1,000 times per million words in common usage.  To put this in some context, in just three months the word ‘covid-19’ has gone from never being uttered to being more commonly uttered than words like ‘hand’, ‘thing’ and ‘true’.