On March 16, the Merriam Webster dictionary broke with its longstanding policy of slow, deliberate acceptance of new words to issue an early update that added about a dozen words to its online lexicon. All of them were—you guessed it—related to the Coronavirus pandemic. Lookups of words like COVID-19, coronavirus, pandemic, and quarantine had increased exponentially since January. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) followed suit in early April. “It is a consistent theme of lexicography that great social change brings great linguistic change,” wrote OED executive director Bernadette Paton, “and that has never been truer than in this current global crisis.” You can say that again! Besides new uses of old terms, people are getting very creative about coining new ones.
I had planned to define all the words, old and new, that have suddenly invaded our language along with the virus itself. But the associated words—from community spread to social distancing—have exploded in number, becoming so numerous there is no way to cover them all. Better to follow the example of lexicographer Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee at the American Dialect Society and founder of the #coronacoinages hashtag on Twitter (@bgzimmer), who explores just one word or phrase at a time in “Word on the Street” his weekly Wall Street Journal column. So for now I will focus on the few that have especially interesting origins or histories, with a debt to Zimmer as well as to Nancy Friedman’s Fritinancy blog (nancyfriedman.typepad.com). For a more in-depth look at coronavirus-related words, check out the glossaries of terms at www.time.com/coronavirus-glossary-definitions or www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/coronavirus-words-guide.
To begin at the beginning, COVID-19, is an acronym coined by the World Health Organization (WHO) from CoronaVirus Disease 2019—that is, the year it erupted. It is also known as SARS CoV2, where SARS is an acronym for “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.” Thus, COVID-19 is an acute respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus—a family of viruses that includes the previously encountered SARS and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Since it is a new, never-before-encountered form of this virus, it has earned the frequent epithet novel to distinguish it from previous manifestations. The word corona means crown; these pathogens were named after the sun’s corona—the bright ring of gases that is visible during a solar eclipse—which they resemble when seen under a microscope. The word virus itself is based on the Latin word for a poisonous liquid or venom, also related to Greek ios, poison.
What began in February as an outbreak—a sudden rise in the incidence of a disease—rapidly morphed into an epidemic—an outbreak that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time. This term comes from joining the Greek prefix epi-, meaning over or upon, with the root -demos, meaning people. On March 11, the Director-General of the World Health Organization officially declared it a global pandemic, changing the Greek prefix to pan-, meaning all. By this point it had become clear that the disease would spread across the globe and affect most, if not all, countries in the world.
And that’s when the panic set in. This word also has Greek origins, but is not related to the pan- of pandemic. Instead, it hails from Greek mythology. The nature god Pan—a mischievous half-man, half-goat figure who played on his pipes as he cavorted with forest nymphs—was associated in the public imagination with wild merry-making. But when he was disturbed from sleep in his forest grove, he would emit a terrifying scream, which Greeks came to associate with any frightening sound they heard in the forest. They described their reaction to such terrors as panikon deima, or “panic fear.” When the word entered the English language around 1600, it soon became associated with “a wild, irrational feeling of anxiety.”
Before long, an abundance of caution became the most frequently used idiom in the American language. From President Trump to news anchors to concert organizers, “out of an abundance of caution,” they were sitting six feet apart, working from home (WFH), and cancelling everything from sporting events to graduation ceremonies. This cliché sanitizes the situation, implying that we don’t really need to be doing whatever the action is, but we are so extra careful that we are doing it anyway. “It implies politeness and restraint instead of flailing panic. It evokes tranquility, makes it seem as though hunkering down is a luxury that we can all enjoy—we actually have a surplus of it” (www.thecut.com)—while masking the reality that many people are jobless, hospitals are overwhelmed, and the number of deaths is still on the rise in many locations.
And there is that other colorful phrase that soon became ubiquitous: hunker down. In early March, Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading expert on infectious disease, warned Americans to “hunker down significantly more’” than previously (Michael Specter, New Yorker 4/20/20)—in other words, to stay home except for essential trips to buy food or medicine. The word hunker was originally Scottish, first used in the 18th century to mean squatting down on the balls of the feet and keeping low to the ground but still able to move quickly. Scots might also describe such a position as “sitting on one’s hunkers.” Entering English in the 19th century, it came to mean “getting down to work,” and later to get comfortable in a safe place and stay there for a long time.
In place of stay home, self-isolate, or social distance, some officials and newscasters used the more familiar admonition to shelter in place. This term originated during the Cold War in reference to a nuclear attack, when the place in question might be a fallout shelter. More recently it has been used for what to do during a school shooting, chemical spill, or terrorist attack: move to an interior room with no windows and stay there until you get the all clear sign. This association with more dire scenarios has caused reluctance among some leaders to use it now. Those who have symptoms, or have been exposed to the virus, are asked to self-quarantine. This word, with its Latin root quar- meaning four, originally referred to a period of 40 days, recalling the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. In the middle ages, Italians adopted it to designate the 40 days boats had to remain in the harbor before passengers were allowed to disembark to ensure they weren’t sick with the plague.
We are not out of the woods yet. One proposed solution is for communities to develop herd immunity, that is, the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population that results if a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to the disease—either through antibody-producing survival or through vaccination. And speaking of herds, the words vaccine and vaccination have the most interesting etymology of all. The word’s root vacca- means cow. In late 18th century England, a doctor named Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who came down with cow pox appeared to be immune to the smallpox epidemics that regularly erupted in the country. He tested his theory by introducing the fluid from their blisters into a test patient’s cut, and found that this patient also became immune. Jenner’s discovery became the major means of preventing smallpox around the world. Nearly a century later, Louis Pasteur used this knowledge to develop a treatment for rabies, which he called the rabies vaccine.
Meanwhile, creative people stuck at home have come up with many playful #coronacoinages. While on our collective coronacation, we might enjoy a quarantini (just a regular martini that you drink alone in your home) or a coronarita (a margarita made with Corona beer). We might raise a glass while joining our friends for a virtual happy hour on Zoom or GoToMeeting. But first we should give ourselves a less-than-stylish coronacut. Are you experiencing coronanoia, when we fear every cough or sneeze signals the need for a 911 call? We all hope our kids don’t experience a covidslide when they return to school. But let’s not become covidiots who ignore social distancing guidelines and endanger our communities! Stay safe and carry a big word.