It is undoubtedly a rare experience for language experts and lexicographers to observe a massive rise in the usage of a single word in a very short time, and for that word to come overwhelmingly to dominate global discourse, even to the exclusion of most other topics.
The term Covid-9 has done just that. As the cases have spread worldwide affecting billions of people, it has correspondingly introduced a new vocabulary to the common people encompassing specialized terms from the fields of epidemiology and medicine, new acronyms, and words to express the societal imperatives of imposed isolation and distancing.
New words and expressions are fast making their entry into the pages of even conservative lexicons like Merriam Webster which never relaxes standards to incorporate trendy words unless they survive the test of time. But corona has changed everything. Lisa Schneider, the Merriam publisher, said: “I wouldn’t anticipate other categories of words seeing this type of entry”.
True, pandemics and calamities have always ushered in new words and expressions in a very rapid manner and epidemics of previous centuries and past decades to the present one testify to this fact very assertively. On 8 August 1982, The New York Times published a report about “a serious disease, whose victims are primarily homosexuals, called acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS.
It was the first time that the acronym had appeared in a mainstream publication. The word gradually gained wider coverage in keeping with the rising number of AIDS patients. Webster again hesitated to include the word, but when a science editor recognised the severity of the disease and its potential of becoming pandemic, he pushed for the word, AIDS, to be included as soon as possible.
The inclusion of the word was effected in 1984, barely two years after its coinage, and this development is rare in the history of the dictionary. The great plagues of the seventeenth century endengered a pool of words to describe the experience of the epidemic. Both epidemic and pandemic are 17th century inclusions. Black Plague first appeared in the early1600s (so called from the black pustules that appeared on the skin of the patients), but Black Death appeared as late as 1755.
A whole village in Derbyshire chose to self-isolate or self-quarantine itself during the 17th century plague, but the word quarantine has its root in the 14th century plague-ravaged Venice as officials of that town isolated all the ships entering the city’s docks for forty days or quaranta giorni to stop the spread of the disease. As the world expanded, so too did the spread of diseases and their vocabulary.
Yellow fever appeared in 1738 and poliomyelitis or polio in 1911. If AIDS arrived in 1982, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) did so in 2003. Coronaviruses (so named as as they looked like solar corona) first appeared in Nature magazine in 1968, but before this year the term remained rather unknown to the common man.
As is often the case in language, some of the newly-heard words and expressions associated with the pandemic are not new at all, but they have suddenly gained prominence and publicity for their direct or indirect association with the pandemic. The term, “community spread” dates back to a 1945 article in the Scientific Monthly. It was titled “Sanitary Ventilation by Radiant Disinfection”; social distance has a sociological meaning ever since 1824. But in the corona context, it refers to measures that are taken to increase the space between people to slow the spread of the virus.
While WFH (work from home) dates to 1995, the term was quite unknown to most of us until it became a way of life for so many of us. The abbreviation PPE can be traced back to 1977 and was restricted to healthcare and emergency officials and the full phrase dates back to 1934. Lockdown as a phrase has its origin in 19th century America which meant a strip of wood or peg that secured the poles or a raft together when timber was transported using waterways.
According to Wikipedia, a lockdown is a prison protocol that usually prevents people, information or cargo from leaving an area. It was only in the 1970s that the term began to mean an extended state of confinement for inmates of prisons and psychiatric hospitals, and thereafter any period of enforced isolation for security.
The oft-repeated phrase, herd-immunity, in today’s world referred in the 1930s to a naturally occurring phenomenon when it was observed that after a significant number of children had become immune to measles, the number of new infections temporarily decreased, including among susceptible children. Another vexing term in the corona context which is making headlines everywhere is comorbidity which, in medicine, refers to the presence of one or more disorders co-occurring with the primary one in the same person.
This term was first introduced in 1970 by the renowned American epidemiologist, AR Feinstein, to assess the condition of a patient suffering from a number of complications simultaneously. But it is now a matter of heated arguments over the alleged attempts by governments to fudge the corona death-count by attributing most of these cases to it. But Covid19 has also brought to the fore certain words and expressions which are neither new nor related to the medical field, but which have gained importance due to the impact of the virus.
The phrase, migrant worker, is a case in point. Now jobless, people, who left their home states in search of jobs elsewhere are now seen walking back hundreds of miles to reach home in harrowing conditions, and are termed so as they migrate to another place to try their luck without any desire to stay there permanently. Covid-9 has also given ample circulation and mileage to some words related to academic and research activities.
Online classes or exams are now the talking point, so are webinars (online seminars) as they can be conducted by maintaining social distance and other safety norms required to be followed in a pandemic-afflicted world. But the impact of the corona pandemic in the linguistic field is far from over. As new waves of the disease affect mankind, more and more new scenarios will develop and with them will emerge new usage or coinage of terms and expressions relating to different fields and sectors ~ all invariably impacted by the dreaded virus.
(The writer teaches English at a Govt-sponsored school, Sailendra Sircar Vidyalaya, Shyambazar, Kolkata. He is also a freelance contributor)