Pandemic Vocabulary

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This post was prompted by a reader who poses the following question:

What is the preferred way to write Covid-19 in prose English?

Answer: If you write for publication, it will depend on your publication’s guidelines.

These three versions can be found in various publications:

So far, I’ve seen the all-lowercase covid-19 only in the Washington Post.

The one-capital Covid-19 appears in the New York Times, on the BBC website, and in the South China Morning Post.

The AP Stylebook recommends COVID-19.

I went to my dictionaries.

Oxford English Dictionary: Covid-19.
Merriam-Webster: COVID-19.

Torn between my two trusty dictionaries, I decided to let the World Health Organization break the tie. After all, if anyone ought to know how to spell it, it should be the people who gave it its name.

Sure enough, the WHO goes with the capitals: COVID-19.

As an afterthought, I checked in with the Chicago Manual of Style to see if they had anything to add. I found a discussion in their publication, CMOS Shop Talk.

When it comes to the names of diseases and related terminology, our editors mostly defer to the usage of the organizations responsible for such nomenclature.

DWT concurs with the CMOS. If you have a choice, write it as COVID-19.

While we are on the subject, let’s look at some other terms and usage that have come from the pandemic.

COVID-19 is the name of the disease caused by the coronavirus that launched the pandemic. The acronym derives from “coronavirus disease 2019.” The word coronavirus combines Latin corona, “crown.” and Latin virus, “poisonous secretion, venom.” The “crown” part of the name comes from spiky projections on the virus that can be seen under a microscope.

SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that causes the disease. The acronym is formed from “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.”

superspreader: a person infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus who is able to transmit the virus to a disproportionately high number of people.

superspreader event: a gathering in which a single infected person passes the virus to many of the other participants.

vaccine: a preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body’s immune response against a specific infectious agent or disease.

The terms vaccination and immunization can be used interchangeably.

vaccination: The inoculation of an individual with any vaccine in order to induce or increase immunity.

immunization: The production of immunity in an organism; especially, inoculation or vaccination against a disease.

Variant and mutation, on the other hand, are not synonyms, although some writers use them as if they were.

Virus variants are caused by mutations.

Mutation refers to a change in the genetic sequence of a virus, for example, a change in position within the gene.

A variant is a virus strain with a collection of mutations.

While the virus was still localized, it was referred to as an epidemic. As it spread to other countries and continents, it began to be referred to as a pandemic.

Both words embody the ancient Greek word for “people,” demos.

Greek epi means “upon.” Greek pan means “all.” Both words refer to a disease that affects “the people” or “all of the people.”

epidemic: prevalent among a people or a community at a special time, and produced by some special causes not generally present in the affected locality.

pandemic: prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world.

The adjective global (relating to, or involving the entire world) frequently precedes pandemic in the media.

In the early stages, as it spread, scientists feared that the disease would become a “global pandemic,” affecting not just one or two continents, but all. Now that the disease has in fact blanketed the world, “global pandemic” has become a pleonasm.

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2 thoughts on “Pandemic Vocabulary”

  1. Thank you for this article. Saw a similar one, hope you don’t mind me sharing, it’s called: “Nine Pandemic Words That Almost No One Gets Right”.

    Also, on the usage of the word “superspreader”, would it be right to say: “Rudy Giuliani has a confirmed COVID case and has not been following the safety guidelines during the presidential election, he is a superspreader”? Just checking 😉

  2. Daisy Hartwell,
    I’m glad you found the material useful. I don’t mind your sharing, as long as you credit the source.

    As for the “superspreader” sentence, No, this use of “superspreader” would not be appropriate.
    Not everyone who contracts COVID is a “superspreader.” Not everyone who defies safety guidelines is a “superspreader.” You need carefully documented contact data before calling anyone a “superspreader.”

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