Reading time: 7 mins

Rarely are we able to witness such rapid development of a language, especially of its vocabulary, as we have in the last two years. Terminological development is usually attributed to major technological and cultural changes in society, but every now and then, something affects us so dramatically that it influences our everyday language. The novel coronavirus disease was definitely one such occurrence. For Europeans it started as a far-away virus that was expected to dominate conversations for a month or so before disappearing from the public eye, like avian flu, swine flu, and SARS before it.

The reality has been very different. The first cases of the novel coronavirus disease outside China were confirmed in January 2020 and soon after, all our lives took an unexpected turn. What also changed was language across the world – we were speaking about things we have not dealt with before and our everyday vocabulary had to adapt. At an unprecedented level, we soon began using terminology that was previously limited to the scientific community, such as PCR tests, PPE, serological tests, acquired immunity, immunocompromised individuals, spike proteins, and vector vs mRNA vaccines.

These new words have been misunderstood, used improperly, and spelled incorrectly. It is key to know which trustworthy language sources we can rely on to express ourselves clearly on such a complex topic that is COVID-19.

Naming the virus and the disease

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus responsible for the disease that has been plaguing the planet for the last two years. This is only one of the possible and accepted names for this virus. WHO also allows the use of the full version of the acronym, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, which is, admittedly, more wordy. Other terms in use, which are less appropriate in medical contexts, include the novel coronavirus or often simply covid. In some languages, simply corona is also used, which is problematic; in English, it already has another meaning, as is the case in Polish, too (it means crown). This term is also imprecise, since they can refer to any viruses from the coronavirus family, and new ones might emerge after the specific type responsible for COVID‑19.

The name for the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 that has now become the norm is COVID-19 (less frequently spelled as Covid-19 or covid-19), as well as the longer term coronavirus disease 2019. As explained in a Britannica companion article, initially, the disease had been variously called Wuhan coronavirus, 2019 novel coronavirus, and 2019-nCoV. The WHO decided on COVID-19 by following established guidelines on the naming of infectious diseases. You can find more information on the process of naming the virus and the disease in the WHO article on this topic.

English-language sources

Sources for English in general

Depending on which of the two most common varieties of English (American or British) you usually opt for, you can choose between a few monolingual dictionaries. These differ mainly in the way the pronunciation of the word is written and the qualifiers they display with a given word. For example, an American dictionary will mark a traditionally British word as “British English”, while a British dictionary will not.

The definitive dictionary of the English language is most definitely the Oxford English Dictionary, but it is subscription-only. Traditionally British ones are the Collins Dictionary and Cambridge Dictionary, while with the free version of the Oxford dictionary and the Macmillan Dictionary you have the option to switch between the UK and US varieties. Merriam-Webster is the definitive American English dictionary.

Sources for English COVID-19 terminology

The downside of general dictionaries is that they commonly do not contain domain-specific terminology. Although the novel coronavirus epidemic and consequent linguistic upheaval have resulted in many common terms being included in the aforementioned dictionaries (see the entry for spike protein in Merriam-Webster or for serology in Cambridge Dictionary), some of the more specific terminology will most likely not be included. When looking up medical terminology related to COVID-19, your search engine is your friend, but choose your resources carefully. Official pages are most reliable, but be mindful of the language variety in which you are writing: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), World Health Organization (WHO), the BMJ or PubMed for in-depth research.

Many university pages and web news portals have created glossary pages for basic COVID-19 terminology, such as the UVA Health COVID-19 glossary, WebMD’s coronavirus glossary, and Yale Medicine glossary of COVID-19 vocabulary.

Useful sources for other languages

If you are looking for reliable sources on COVID-19 terminology in French, we recommend the following websites:

German experiences the same terminological adoption and neologisms as other world languages. The Mannheim-based Leibniz Institute for the German Language (IDS) has listed more than 1,000 new pandemic-related words. For each term, the institute quotes a newspaper article where it was used. Regardless of who introduced the words to the German language, they reflect how German-speaking countries dealt with the pandemic. For a more “regulated” list of COVID-19 terminology, consult Duden, the monolingual German dictionary. You may also find the following pages useful or interesting:

IATE is always a reliable source of translations and terminology for official languages of EU member states. It is continuously being updated by EU terminologists. By 11 March 2021, they had already added 730 unique pandemic-related entries to the dataset, which makes IATE a wonderful reference source.

If you are looking for advice on terminology use for Slovenian, you can access a more in-depth article on this topic here. Do you struggle with any other pandemic-related terms or their translations? Let us know in the comments below or at info@alamma.eu and we will be more than happy to help you out!