Covid-19 language and the Oxford English Dictionary
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The speed of linguistic evolution has led to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) changing their own modus operandi. For the last two decades, they have been issuing quarterly updates, usually in March, June, September and December. But on two occasions in 2021, the editors released special updates to reflect the impact of Covid-19 on the English language.
Those updates highlighted many linguistic shifts related to the pandemic. But surprisingly, the editors have thus far acknowledged only one truly new word, and that word is Covid-19. Most of the other changes they have noted relate to older words and phrases that have returned to common usage, such as the term social distancing.
A dictionary now too large to print
The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928. Over the years, additional volumes of new words were published and were integrated into a second edition that was completed in 1989. An online version of the dictionary appeared in 2000. The third edition of the dictionary is being developed but will not be finished until at least 2034. Due to the sheer number of words and phrases that must be included, the third edition will not appear in print but will be a digital release.
The decision not to print the third edition of the OED had been made prior to the pandemic, but the edition will now be even bigger than it would otherwise have been. Not just because there are so many new words to include but because new uses for old words demand lengthier definitions.
Medical terminology normalised
The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly demonstrated that new and dramatic situations drive swift linguistic change. One of the effects of the enormous social upheaval caused by Covid-19 has been the absorption into everyday speech of previously obscure terms. This is particularly true of medical terms.
Scientific terms tend to be omitted from dictionaries unless they gain traction in everyday language. There are so many different drugs on the market that it would be impossible to list them all. Common drugs such as paracetamol are included in the Oxford English Dictionary, but rarer drugs are not. As a result of the pandemic, Hydroxychloroquine and dexamethasone were added to the dictionary as they have been used to treat Covid-19 patients.
The language of social isolation
Many words and phrases related to social isolation have been with us since long before the pandemic but are now more commonly used or have gained new meanings. Who would have talked about self-isolating prior to 2020? Likewise, the words shelter and shield would not have been used to reference locking oneself away to avoid infection before the pandemic. These terms have received updated definitions in the OED to reflect their current usage.
Many expressions have seen their meanings shift thanks to Covid-19. An elbow bump was originally a gesture of celebration but is now understood to be a safe way to greet another person. The Elbow bump has transformed from a high five into a handshake.
To include or not to include
While the OED has already been updated to include many coronavirus-related terms, other words and phrases have been omitted, at least for the time being. Sometimes the editors hold fire on updates. This gives them time to assess whether the new terms, often blends of two existing words, will remain in common parlance or fade away. For example, will we continue to use “maskne” to describe acne outbreaks caused by facemasks or “covidiot” to shame people who ignore safety recommendations or restrictions? Other new terms that have appeared include “doomscrolling” (scanning covid-related news) and “quarantini” (a cocktail drunk when self-isolating).
The terms that have the greatest chance of enduring post-pandemic are those that relate to lasting behavioural changes. Words referencing the use of the Zoom platform are probably here to stay. Prior to the pandemic, zooming wasn’t generally used as a term for video chatting. The meaning of zoom was simply to move very fast. But the Zoom platform rose to prominence in double quick time, and now zoom is used as a verb or a noun. Zoom has also been blended with other words to create new terms such as “zoombombing” – the practice of invading someone else’s video chat or meeting.
1200 new German words
All languages have been impacted by the pandemic to one extent or another, not just English. Indeed, lexicographers at the Leibniz Institute for the German Language have compiled more than 1,200 new words related to the coronavirus pandemic. The German tendency to compound words has contributed greatly to the extent of the new vocabulary. For example, A Geisterveranstaltung (ghost event) is a concert or sporting event with no audience in attendance.
Have languages changed for good?
It remains to be seen which pandemic-inspired terms will stand the test of time. It could be decades before we can confirm the true linguistic impact of Covid-19. But it won’t be the decisions of the editors at the OED or any other dictionary that will dictate how languages change over time. Their decisions are simply reactions to what has already happened. It is we the people that will decide and for the most part, subconsciously. Many of the new words and the new meanings for old words that have appeared recently will disappear almost as quickly as they arrived. Others will continue to be used and to the extent that we will soon forget their origins.