How the COVID-19 is modifying the English language


Back in April, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary did something out of the usual. For the past 20 years at least they have always issued an update four times in a year so as to make known to the public new words and meanings selected for inclusion. These updates usually occur in the month of March, June, September and December.

In the previous spring, and also in July, the editors of the dictionary put out special updates, introducing the need to put down the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the English language. Though previous documentations have been made in linguistic due to COVID-19, yet the editors claim that the COVID-19 pandemic has only but brought about one new word which is the acronym ‘COVID-19’. Majority of the changes made by the editors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is with regards to already existing words which are now used more often than before like social distancing and reproduction number.

Post the changes in the English language has painted a clearer picture at how language can rapidly alter provided the eventuality of an unforeseen event both at the social and economic level. One of the major ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic in the English language sector is that it pushed to the forefront obscure medical terms. Normally, the dictionary adds scientific and technical terms on the condition that they achieve some degree of currency outside their individual disciplines. Drugs such Ritalin and Oxycontin can be seen in the dictionary unlike drugs such as Aripiprazole. Having said that, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the raise of two drug names into public awareness, the drugs include Hydroxychloroquine which is ideal for the treatment of plasmodium falciparium (malaria) which is believed by some to be an effective cure for the COVID-19 virus. The drug was included in the Oxford English Dictionary back in July, though the drug has been appearing in prints as early as in the 1950s. Another drug other than the Hydroxychloroquine that has been made more known to the public as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is Dexamethasone, a corticosteroid that has reduced the mortality rate of the COVID-19. Like the Hydroxychloroquine it began occurring in prints in the 1950s but was included in the Oxford English Dictionary in their July update. In the dictionary a quotation was made to illustrate the drugs use in combating of the COVID-19.

The common lingos used since the COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic has always been in existence but are now more commonly used due to the effect of the pandemic, this include words like self-isolate, self-isolated, and this words all received revised citations in order to better explain its new found usage.

Additionally, some terms have experienced a slight shift in meaning. Elbow bump has moved from a gesture known to denote a high five as documented on 1981, to a safer way to greet someone in the now COVID-19 era. There has also been difference in regards to the US and UK English, with the UK referring to it as self-isolate while the US refers to it as self-quarantine. The US has also developed a slang for the virus ‘Rona’ which is gotten from the name of the COVID-19 pandemic ‘Coronavirus’, this slang is also used by people in Australia, but it’s usage has not been exactly widely recorded so the editors have not seen the need to include it.

Also, the issue of deciding if or not a word has enough usage to be included in a dictionary has posed to be a reoccurring problem for most lexicographers, and the COVID-19 has produced enough new words which are blends of two different words, such words include:

  • Maskne (mask and acne) – An acne caused by repetitive use of face mask.
  • Quarantine (quarantine and martini) – A cocktail that is consumed while in quarantine
  • Covidiot (covid and idiot –  used to describe someone who ignores COVID-19 safety precautions.

Now whether the terms will be in continuous use even after the pandemic is in doubt.