Writing the Pandemic

By Maeve Maddox

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Since the media’s first faltering coverage of the coronavirus called COVID-19, the disease has not only embedded itself in the world’s population, it has also claimed a place in the English language.

Coverage of the disease has swallowed so much of the daily news coverage since 2020 that the AP Stylebook, the Merriam-Webster dictionary and other authorities have found it necessary to issue specific guidelines, definitions, and distinctions.

First, because the term coronavirus applies to a family of known viruses, the new family member was identified as a novel (from classical Latin novellus, “new or recent”) coronavirus, abbreviated as nCoV.

Merriam-Webster has fast-tracked updates to keep up with the rapid pace at which the pandemic spawns new terms and new definitions for existing words.

Three of the M-W updates mean about the same thing.

index case: the first documented case of an infectious disease (or other condition).
index patient: an individual affected with the first known case of an infectious disease (or other condition).
patient zero: a person identified as the first to become infected in an outbreak.

The following added terms are extremely familiar by now.

contact tracing: the practice of identifying and monitoring individuals who may have had contact with an infectious person.

social distancing: the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance (such as six feet or more) from other people

self-quarantine: to refrain from any contact with other individuals for a period of time (such as two weeks) during the outbreak of a contagious disease.

M-W has also added a definition for super-spreader, with a hyphen. AP prefers the closed compound, superspreader.

AP’s recent pandemic guidelines includes instructions for the writing of other compounds as well.

When the following expressions are used as adjectives, they take a hyphen; when used as verbs, they do not:

shelter-in-place orders
stay-at-home directive

The families were told to shelter in place.
The employees were told to stay at home.

The following take hyphens:

long-haul COVID-19
long-haulers
mask-wearing
hand-washing

The following do not take hyphens:

contact tracing
distance learning
social distancing
N95 (the face mask)

Some other directives from AP regard lock down, PPE, and drive-thru.

As a verb, lock down is written as two words. As a noun or adjective, it is written as one word: lockdown.

Bangladesh to Lock Down as COVID-19 Cases Surge (verb)
South Australia said it will also lift a lockdown on Wednesday. (noun)
Major changes to lockdown rules have taken effect in England and Scotland. (adjective)

PPE means “personal protective equipment.” AP allows the initials if quoting someone directly. Otherwise, write it out.

This is what AP has to say about the term drive-thru (noun and adjective):

Drive-thru is correct, drive-through is not.

Sorry AP. This is one I can never see without shuddering.

“Drive-thru” does not come up at all in the OED.

Entering “drive-thru” in Merriam-Webster will bring up drive-through, with the note, “less commonly drive-thru.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offers “Considerations for Planning Curbside/Drive-Through Vaccination Clinics.”

I’m going with the CDC on this one.

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