Circuit breakers, PPEs, and Veronica buckets: World Englishes and Covid-19
One of the many consequences of the current Covid-19 crisis is that it has focused the entire global conversation on a single subject in a way that has rarely happened before. Most of us, no matter where we are in the world and what language we speak, have had to coin new words and adapt existing ones to be able to talk about the extraordinary times we are all living in.
By analyzing our multibillion-word monitor corpus of English, OED editors can observe how English speakers across the globe are changing the lexicon as a response to the same social pressures resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Our March 2020 corpus data for different varieties of English show that some of the most frequently used words are the same across all varieties—words such as coronavirus, covid-19, pandemic, self-isolation, and quarantine. This means that these words are on all English-speaking lips, from London to New York, from Lagos to Mumbai, from Kuala Lumpur to Sydney.
However, despite these similarities, we also see some very interesting differences. The set of measures that many countries have taken to contain the spread of the virus by severely limiting the movement of people outside the home is being called by various names in different jurisdictions. Lockdown is the word with the most widespread use, and is the preferred term in countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. In the United States the coronavirus restrictions are called shelter-in-place, originally an instruction for people to find a place of safety in the location they are occupying in the event of a nuclear or terrorist attack. In Singapore, the term circuit breaker is used, known to most people as a safety device that stops the flow of current in an electric circuit, but also familiar to those in finance as a regulatory instrument designed to prevent panic selling by temporarily stopping trading on an exchange. While it makes sense for a global business hub such as Singapore to have adopted a piece of finance slang for its quarantine measures, its closest neighbours have taken a different tack. In Malaysia, the initialism MCO is used, short for movement control order, while in the Philippines, ECQ is preferred, short for enhanced community quarantine—both phrases are the official government designations for these countries’ stay-at-home regulations.
By now, everyone has heard of the initialism PPE for personal protective equipment, which is also being used as a count noun—PPEs—in various Englishes, especially in Philippine English, where it is used along with similarly pluralized initialisms such as PUIs (patients under investigation), and PUMs (persons under monitoring). Both PUIs and PUMs have a history of travel to coronavirus-afflicted areas or of exposure to the virus, but PUIs exhibit Covid-19 symptoms while PUMs do not—PUIs are therefore admitted to hospital, while PUMs are only required to self-quarantine for 14 days. In Singapore, people who need to undergo this 14-day period of self-isolation are issued an SHN—a stay-home notice.
Apart from initialisms, coronavirus talk is also characterized by new lexical formations. Filipinos applaud the dedication of their frontliners—the doctors, nurses, and other essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. Indians talk of putting foreign returnees—people returning to India from other countries—under quarantine. Singaporeans speak of Covid-19 patients warded in isolation rooms in hospitals.
Much of the conversation has also centred on the devastating effects of the coronavirus crisis on people’s livelihoods and the steps that governments are taking to mitigate them. There is a lot of discussion about furloughs in the UK, wage subsidies in Australia, and rental rebates in Singapore. There is much talk of bill deferrals in Canada, and of a moratorium on debt servicing in India. In East Africa, people are asking what their elected officials are doing to cushion vulnerable citizens from the impact of the pandemic. In the Philippines, the government named a highly controversial law granting the president additional powers to deal with the coronavirus emergency the ‘Bayanihan to Heal as One Act’. This name uses the Philippine English word bayanihan—a borrowing from Tagalog which refers to a traditional system of communal work, and by extension, invokes a spirit of civic unity and cooperation among Filipinos.
English speakers around the world are now more concerned than ever before about personal hygiene, as evidenced by the frequency of use of words such as face mask, gloves, hand washing, and hand sanitizer. In West Africa, they have a unique sanitary weapon in the fight against the coronavirus: the Veronica bucket. Invented by Ghanaian scientist Veronica Bekoe, the Veronica bucket is a type of sanitation equipment composed of a covered bucket with a tap fixed at the bottom and a bowl fitted below it to collect wastewater. Although these buckets have been a common sight in public places in Ghana for some time, they are now in high demand in other African countries in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak, as they are a simple, cost-effective way to encourage frequent hand washing in areas with no access to running water.
Another term that has gained new significance during this pandemic is wet market. When this word was added to the OED in 2016, its use was largely restricted to Southeast Asia, where it refers to a market for the sale of fresh meat, fish, and produce. Wet market is an important part of Southeast Asian vocabulary, as the wet market is an essential link in the food supply chain of several Southeast Asian countries. However, since the identification of a Wuhan market as ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak, the wet market has become a hot topic—its frequency in our monitor corpus spiked from 0.06 per million tokens in December 2019 to 0.60 in January 2020, 0.62 in February, and 1.36 per million tokens in March.
As linguist Lisa Lim notes in Hong Kong’s Sunday Post Magazine, wet markets have been incorrectly conflated with illegal wildlife markets in the popular press, and have therefore become the subject of much unfair criticism, especially from people outside of Asia.
As can be seen from the words and expressions that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore, although the entire world is facing a common threat, the individual ways in which we respond are still shaped by our distinct social and cultural environments.
Header image: Марьян Блан | @marjanblan
The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.