Coronavirus is changing the dictionary

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Since it went online in 2000, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has only ever updated on a strict quarterly cadence. But, in April, its lexicographers made an exception for Covid-19. Literally, for that word.

In addition to Covid-19, the OED added 20 new or updated coronavirus-related word entries and sub-entries including: “infodemic,” “social recession,” and “elbow bump.” The word “coronavirus” itself was added to the OED in 2008 along with papillomavirus, retrovirus, and rhinovirus. But, in addition to indicating the birth of new words, this update reflects the cultural evolution of words that already existed and a reappraisal of what they mean to us now.

Updates to the OED typically reflect significant shifts in history and culture. In January 2018, the OED added and updated more than 1,100 words including “electric catfish,” “hangry,” and “mansplaining.’”  Some were entirely new words that we invented to explain new societal phenomena but others, like “snowflake,” took on new meaning.

In June 2014, the centenary of the start of World War I, the OED updated 214 words specifically associated with the war, including “whizz-bang, v.” and “spike-bozzle, v.”’ The definition of ‘spike-bozzle’, by the way, is: “To destroy (an enemy aircraft, especially an airship) completely.”

For its April update, the OED added “to flatten the curve” under the word “curve, n.” It’s a medical term that existed before the pandemic but probably very few of us could define it last year. Today, the CDC curve chart that illustrates the concept is omnipresent on social media and the term is unmissable when browsing Covid news headlines.

“PPE,” or personal protective equipment, is another term that has suddenly become part of our normal vocabulary. Although most of us currently associate it directly with masks and gloves, the OED definition is: “clothing and equipment designed to provide the wearer or user protection against hazardous substances or environments, or to prevent transmission of infectious diseases.” It includes all eye, lung, skin and hand protection used by medical professionals, construction workers and firefighters.

Here are some other April updates:

  • infodemic, n.: “A proliferation of diverse, often unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy, or event, which disseminates rapidly and…”
  • R0, n.: “The average number of cases of an infectious disease arising by transmission from a single infected individual, in a population that has not…”
  • self-isolate, v.: “intransitive and transitive (reflexive). To isolate oneself from others deliberately; (now) esp. to undertake self-imposed isolation for a period of…”
  • self-quarantine, n.: “Self-imposed isolation undertaken in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease, or as part of a community initiative to inhibit…”
  • shelter in place, n.: “A public safety protocol invoked during an emergency in which there is an imminent threat to life or health, instructing people to find a place of…” plus one more sense…
  • social distancing, n.: “The action of practice of maintaining a specified physical distance from other people, or of limiting access to and contact between people (esp…” plus one more sense…
  • social isolation, n.: “The state of having little or no contact with other people; (now) esp. a condition in which an individual lacks social connections or has no access…”
  • social recession n. (at SOCIAL adj. and n.): “a period of widespread deterioration in quality of life among members of a community, especially due to reduced interactions and weakened social bonds.”
  • elbow bump n. (at ELBOW n.): “(a) a blow with or to the elbow; an injury resulting from this;  (b) a gesture (usually of greeting or farewell) in which two people lightly tap their elbows together as an alternative to a handshake or embrace, esp. in order to reduce the risk of spreading or catching an infectious disease.”
  • WFH n. (at W n.): “working (or work) from home, either as a regular or permanent alternative to office work or on an occasional or temporary basis.”

There will probably come a time when we look back on the OED’s definition of ‘social isolation’ and argue that, in fact, we had more contact than ever during this crisis. We reached out to our loved ones, old friends, celebrated birthdays and we even learned new words.