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Linguistic change intensifies

by Karina Smith

This year has been dominated by pandemic-associated words. Politicians’ updates are littered with examples like ‘lockdown’ and ‘flattening the curve’. Journalists outdo one another with ‘uncertain times’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘new normal’. And social media larks around with ‘sanny’, ‘covidiot’ and ‘iso’. 

The first half of this year saw our vocabulary change, rapidly. Robert Lawson, a sociolinguist at Birmingham City University, says that ‘the speed of the linguistic change we’re seeing with Covid-19* is unprecedented.’ (*More on that acronym later.) Coronavirus not only dominates the way we live, but also how we communicate.

Editors, the time-honoured gatekeepers of language, have now added a coronavirus lexicon to their toolkits. And our expertise is required to guide readers and consumers to words such as ‘vector’, ‘morbidity’, ‘fomites’ and ‘contagion’ in a clear, understandable way. 

As a fellow word-lover, I now share with you the etymology and neologisms of COVID-19.

‘Coronavirus’ itself is not a new word. Coronaviruses were first reported in the 1930s by veterinary scientists who identified a virus linked to respiratory infections in chickens. But the name coronavirus wasn’t devised until 1967 when two virologists, June Almeida (Scotland) and David Tyrrell (England), visualised an unclassified virus that had been causing upper respiratory tract diseases in humans. They named it after its outer fringe projections, which looked like a solar corona, from the Latin meaning crown or wreath. 

Left: The virions of coronaviruses; Right: The corona of the sun seen during an eclipse.

‘COVID-19’ was introduced to our language in February 2020 by the World Health Organization. And there are already regional differences for the acronym. Remember ‘Covid-19’ a couple of paragraphs ago? Covid-19 is more common in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, whereas COVID-19 is used in Australia, the US and Canada. 

I did a quick scan of Australian and international publications and found quite a variance in the acronym’s use.

Australian Government and state governments 
UK Government 
US Government 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US) 
The Australian 
The Age

The Guardian in Australia, UK and US 
NZ Herald (interchangeably with COVID-19)
The Dominion Post (NZ) 
The Times (UK)

The Herald Sun
The Daily Mail
(UK) (uses all three versions)

Medical words have also entered our everyday glossary. But with the upheaval of COVID-19 it’s been difficult to distinguish between some of this terminology. Editors have found these terms used interchangeably and incorrectly. Examples I have come across are: epidemic versus pandemic, infectious versus contagious, respirator versus ventilator, quarantine versus isolation. 

One reassurance, though: in ‘Straya’ we can rely on slang words to fill any language gaps. 
In no particular order, here are some of Straya’s best:
rona: no explanation needed
sanny: hand sanitiser; the hallmark of our fight with COVID-19; ‘pass the sanny’ is heard across the nation
wfh: working from home allowed us to ‘don our trackies’ below our Zoom screens
irl: in real life; ‘hope to see you irl soon. xxx’ was our text signature during lockdown
covidiot: those reckless people who ignore health advice
magpies: remember the toilet paper hoarders?
quazzie: quarantine; ‘I’ve been tested for rona so am in quazzie’
zoombombing: intrusions from strangers (online) and kids, pets and partners (irl)
quarantini: my favourite was an espresso ‘quarantini’ during iso.

And the Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC) just announced their 2020 word of the year: iso. Amanda Laugesen, Chief Editor at the ANDC, said ‘iso’ was chosen because ‘it was quite a linguistically productive word. We had “iso bubbles” and “iso haircuts” and “iso fashion”’.

My favourite ‘iso’ usage on social media was #isobaking, which ultimately led to my own #isokilos.

Humour emerges as a prevailing element with these language changes, and it has played a big role in our response to this pandemic. 


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