Major health crises and the OED: language evolution and challenges in health communication

The questions which could not be addressed during the webinar session were considered by the panelists and the answers are available to view below.


How do you filter examples of use? When they are commonly used, when you see a shift in meaning (even if it is not commonly used), or in any other way? Do you filter examples from any particular political, social or cultural point of view? (especially with such influx of information as perceived in COVID-19 crisis)

At Oxford Languages we use a multibillion-word corpus, which is a collection of different types of written and spoken language put together in an electronic database designed specifically for linguistic research, to track the emergence of new words, or shifts in meaning or patterns of use of existing words. Once we have a list of candidates, OED editors go to work carefully researching our electronic and paper research databases to make sure that there are several independent examples of the word being used, for a reasonable amount of time and reasonable frequency in the kinds of text we would normally expect to find them. There is no exact time-span and frequency threshold, as this may vary depending on each word. Some words and senses are relatively young, such as the Covid-19-related words we added last year, but they were quickly added to the OED because of the huge social impact they had in such a short space of time. Other words and senses are not overwhelmingly frequent, but are included because they are of specific cultural, historical, or linguistic significance.

What is, according to OED, the best COVID-19 glossary EN to Italian at the moment, if any? Also, I lost the references of the Danica Salazar project, could you please provide them (links or other)?

Oxford Languages offers an English-Italian Covid-19 glossary as part of its Covid-19 Multilingual Project. It can be downloaded here. Just look for ‘Italian’ on the list and click ‘Download Translations’ to get the vocabulary list in pdf. The rest of Oxford Languages Covid-19 resources can be found in its Covid-19 Language Hub.

Did the stigma and discrimination that associates with HIV, AIDS and gay stem from the disease itself or did it stem from the journalism that popularized the word? And will Asian people likely face the same fate, as there are some people that associate Asian people with COVID 19?

AIDS was first named ‘Gay-Related Immune Deficiency’ (GRID) in 1982, and was also commonly called the ‘gay cancer’ in the press. The widespread use of this term, which is exceedingly inaccurate from an epidemiological perspective, led to a public backlash against homosexuality in the 1980s and early 1990s following the gay liberation movement of the 1970s, and negatively impacted the public-health response to the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the early 1990s. In the case of Covid-19, we have been more careful in avoiding the mistake of linking diseases to certain populations. The name for Covid-19  was chosen following the World Health Organization’s best practices for naming new human infectious diseases—it is an accessible term for people around the world to use that also avoids the stigmatizing association of the disease with any particular group of people. And even though certain people and groups—notably the former president of the United States, Donald Trump—tried to use the terms ‘Wuhan virus’ or ‘Chinese virus’, this was generally rejected in favour of the much more widely used Covid-19 and coronavirus, thus helping lessen to a certain degree the anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in the United States and other countries that began to intensify at the beginning of the pandemic.

As a Vietnamese immigrant and resident physician in the United States, I can personally relate to about most of the identity associated to words, such as ‘wet market’ and ‘Chinese virus’. However, I’d like to comment and add on the War Metaphor from my perspective as a physician. Dr. Salazar is on point in what she commented and I wanted to genuinely thank her for bringing the subject to light. There are some moral issues comparing us physicians to soldiers and many bioethicists were against it in the beginning. Before we graduated as physicians, we vowed to the Hippocratic Oath to protect the health and lives of people. In a sense, calling us soldiers was a way to implying that we as physicians have a moral responsibility and a duty to be on the frontlines, like soldiers (this is a good article). Lastly, health communication and education is a passion of mine. If there’s anything I can do to help from a medical perspective, I’d be happy to help in anyway that I can.

There is no doubt that doctors, healthcare practitioners, and other essential workers share the heroism, courage, and dedication to service of soldiers, so on that point we absolutely agree. Thank you for your offer to help. Please do keep in touch using the address we provide, we would love to hear from you.

War rhetoric legitimizes casualties – but I would be interested to see country to country differences in language/rhetoric—I’m not a linguist but a scientist first and foremost, but have seen a distinct difference in the type of language used in the media in Germany vs Britain, for example—has anyone else made similar country to country comparative observations?

We have not made cross-linguistic comparisons apart from those already discussed in the webinar. There is a study that uses Twitter data to see which metaphors are used in tweets talking about Covid-19, though it focuses only on English. According to this study, ‘war’ is still the predominant metaphor, but it has also found evidence for alternative metaphorical framings such as Covid-19 as a ‘monster’, ‘storm’, or ‘tsunami’. The #ReframeCovid initiative aims to collect non-war metaphors for Covid-19 and shows some examples from different languages.

In the UK, we’ve seen public officials using sports metaphors to talk about COVID-19 to the public as well as war metaphors (I’m thinking of Jonathan Van Tam in particular). Do you think these sports metaphors are more or less helpful than the fighting talk?

The language of sports and games is something that people of all ages are familiar with, and since sport does not come with any expectation of inevitable death, it can be a more positive and productive way of framing the response to the pandemic, especially in stressing the need to work together as a team to reach a common goal.

Richard’s point that terminologies are always locally semantic, and can be adapted by local language communities is valid. Regarding your point that the label ‘MSM’ disguised or hid emergent gay culture, you should know that that term saved the lives of many men who had sex with men in Papua New Guinea, at the time when we feared the HIV+ epidemic would go past 3% of the general population. In fact, men who identified as gay—in the North American / Euro sense—co-opted the vocabulary and label of ‘MSM’, to empower their internal gay community, while keeping men who did not identify with ‘gay’ from hiding and not getting anti-virals. This lesson is, as you say, key for the COVID-19 pandemic public health messaging.

From an epidemiological perspective, it is certain that public health campaigns have been able to reach ‘hidden’ populations through the term ‘MSM’. The term, however, has not been without controversy both in public health and in LGBTQ politics. The point raised in the webinar is but one point of view among many, and it is specific to certain communities in countries where the term ‘gay’ has an important cultural history, especially Western countries like Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It is interesting to note that in other contexts like Southeast Asia, MSM has in fact been co-opted, as you point out, by LGBTQ organizers as a catch-all term for various target populations who may not identify as gay but who are united by shared vulnerabilities and aspirations.