The language of Covid-19: special OED update – Q&A

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


What do you think about the use of the word ‘muzzle’ by polemicists such as Peter Hitchens as a synonym for ‘mask’?

Emotive subjects can often produce emotive language, and one can often demonstrate one’s position through choice of words. Our job is to record the language as used, and as such we have to remain objective about its use. Interestingly, muzzle meaning “a piece of cloth worn so as to cover the lower part of the face” is an obsolete Scottish use.

Are there also new terms or words added to the dictionary which are results of previous pandemic (ebola, sars, black plague, etc.)?

Yes; there are words that were previously included in the OED which have come to prominence through previous pandemics or epidemics. Ebola, SARS, and the Black Plague and Black Death are all in the OED. Terms like Spanish influenza (dating from 1890, but it was during the pandemic of 1918 that we saw the emergence of the abbreviation Spanish flu), yellow fever, HIV, and AIDS have all entered the language because of health emergencies. Indeed, the first quotation at self-quarantined (which we added in our first extraordinary update in April) is a from a historical description of the plight of the English village of Eyam, which cut itself off from the rest of the country to prevent an outbreak of the bubonic plague from spreading).

I’m a little confused. Was ‘hydroxychloroquine’ not included in the OED before this? Or is it the new meaning of the term that is being added to OED in the extraordinary update?

Yes, earlier print editions of the OED did not include the word ‘hydroxychloroquine’, but it has now been added to the online edition.

Can you please explain again about what is interesting about the new terms about Covid-19?

Well, apart from the words themselves being interesting, as lexicographers it is fascinating to witness the uptake of words in such a short period of time. Even though many of the words we included were not new, they had certainly come to prominence as a result of the current pandemic and now inform so many of our conversations; it’s like we’ve always known and used them. Even the scientific words, which were probably not used beyond the scientists working in the related fields, are now second nature to many of us.

I’ve noticed that sometimes people say coronavirus or Covid-19 with the definite article “the” (the coronavirus, the Covid-19), sometimes without it (no article). Have you checked this phenonenom too?

In our corpus data, Covid and Covid-19 are overwhelmingly used without the. With coronavirus on the other hand, the data is more evenly split between uses with the (like ‘the spread of the coronavirus’) and uses without (like ‘the spread of coronavirus’). As there are a number of coronaviruses, it makes sense that people sometimes use the when talking about the specific coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

Are you planning another special update?

We haven’t made any firm decision on whether we will do an update. Much will depend on how the vocabulary continues to develop. It may make more sense to make small adjustments to existing entries, and to perhaps publish new entries as part of our usual quarterly cycle. In any case, we’ll continue to monitor and track the language.

The environment is also being referred to more often on account of Covid. Are there any changes in relation to this?

While the Covid updates did not include words specifically related to the environment, the OED continues to monitor the usage of such terms and adds or updates them when appropriate. For example, we’ve recently added Anthropocene and climate emergency.

We’ve talked a lot about the language of Covid quickly becoming second nature, why/how do you think that happened? Is it just how much we are talking about it and for how long? Is it because understanding the words around the pandemic can mean life and death?

I think both must have played their parts. It’s hard to escape the use of the terminology given how global and important the story. Add to this the seriousness, and our natural inclination to want to understand the world, then it’s not surprising how quickly we have become familiar with the language.

What are the criteria/guidelines to add or consider a neologism in OED? For example, number of search results, frequency, recommendation from any academic body, etc?

The important factor in deciding to include a word in the OED is evidence. There are no exact numbers involved, but we have to be able to find evidence that the word is being used. Normally, we would want to find evidence of usage over a number of years (say 5 years), but some words will be and have been included more quickly than that. With more general words, we would look for evidence that the general public is using them. For more technical vocabulary, we would look to make sure that the people you would expect to be using it are using it. And of course, with this special update, there is a lot of crossover between these 2 groups.

I am indeed worried about translating some English terms into Arabic which are popularized on a surge of a pandemic, or may be a political situation, etc. My question: does the OED add the new entries based on the spread in media? Or the way round, I mean: is there any lexical analysis before adopting new entries? For example a phrase like post-truth was added in 2017 in connection to the election in USA. The case is more complicated when dealing with scientific terms.

The fact that words are spreading in the media is usually an indication that they are being used. It’s true that words can be disseminated more quickly if they are picked up by the media, but as part of our editing processes, we always do lexical analysis. And in fact it is this analysis that usually demonstrates these words have been around longer than their current use in the media might at first suggest. Post-truth, for example, has seen a surge in usage recently, particularly around the US election of 2016, but it has a longer history going back (in that particular sense) to the early 1990s. Its recent use probably made us aware of it, but our research indicated it was already in use.

Will the term ‘unlock’ (lifting of lockdown) be revised in the OED? Especially in India, we are having ‘unlock’ in phases as declared by the government.

The OED entry for unlock was actually revised 2017. We may take a look at it and see if there are any adjustments to be made, or indeed new senses to be added, in light of the last 6 months or so.

Can you tell us what constitutes an OED update? For example, does it refer to adding a new citation to update an existing entry? (apart from coinages)

An OED update happens quarterly (March, June, September, and December) and consists of publication of a number of brand new entries or brand new senses to existing entries, as well updating a set of existing OED entries to bring them up to date in light of current research.

Will there be a special OED dictionary just for Covid?

I don’t believe there are any current plans to do so, and of course readers can look up all of the entries in our special Covid updates for free. But if working in language teaches you anything, it is never say never.

One question was about euphemisms… How about “China virus”, “China flu” and some of the other terms used to fingerpoint at the source of the virus?

Terms like China flu and China virus could be included in the OED, if there was widespread evidence of their use. We could always take care to contextualize such vocabulary, and label it appropriately if it was held to be derogatory or offensive.

Will existing entries like “face mask” show increasingly occurring spellings such as “facemask”?

We show spelling variation in the ‘forms’ section of an entry: for example, at the entry for doughnut n., the variant spelling donut is given. However, since variation between open, closed, and hyphenated compounds (such as face mask, facemask, and face-mask) is a normal and often unremarkable phenomenon in English, we don’t usually show such variants unless there is something historically significant about them – though variation might be indicated in the illustrative quotations. We select the most frequent form as the headword or lemma form, which, in this case, is still face mask.

As lexicographers, do you also observe the adjectives that typically go with the term Covid-19? Examples include adjectives such as deadly, new, etc.

Yes, as lexicographers we always look at the typical collocates of a word to see how it’s used and in what contexts, and to help us select typical examples. In our corpus, if we look only at cases where Covid-19 isn’t followed by a noun (since uses like ‘positive Covid-19 cases’ are not relevant to this question), the most common adjectival modifier of Covid-19 is severe, e.g. in ‘patients with severe Covid-19’.

How are you separating definitions of social distancing and physical distancing. They seem to have been used interchangeably when perhaps physical distancing what is actually meant in most cases.

This highlights the fact that a dictionary’s purpose is to describe the language in the way that it is used and not to provide medical advice . On occasion this may differ from, say, the specific medical application. And yes, people have come to use terms like self-isolate and self-quarantine interchangeably (something we note at the entry for the latter), and social distancing and physical distancing synonymously when there might be a technical difference.

Also question related to Spanish. In Spanish speaking countries there was a debate around if COVID-19 was “she” or “he”, because we have gender-declination. Royal Academy of Spanish decided it was she, because it was “the disease” (la enfermedad). Did something similar happened in English?

Because modern English doesn’t have grammatical gender, there wasn’t the same issue in English.

Are you tracking the different shapes of the economic recovery curves – eg U V K L ?

I don’t think this falls within our remit as lexicographers. Any surrounding vocabulary is something we would track, of course.

Where I’m from in the USA many people call the virus “the corona.” Is this entirely regional or do other areas of the english speaking world use it?

This is now a widely-used abbreviation around the English-speaking world. It was one of the new words added in a recent update: see corona, n/3.

Do you include nicknames for the virus, like “the rona” (very popular among young USA people), or the different ways of referring to covid 19, such as “the corona”?

Yes, we have added new entries for several abbreviations including corona, n/3, CV, and CV-19. We’ve been monitoring ‘rona’, which is trending in Australia as well as the US, and we may consider adding an entry for it in a future update.

I would like to know how can you look for collocations once you are in the (entry of the) word in OED?

Typical collocations are often noted in definitions: for example, at the relevant sense of frontline, adj., it is noted that this is ‘often in frontline worker’; at corona, n/3 it is noted that this is ‘frequently as a modifier, as in corona crisis, corona pandemic, etc.’ Typical collocations are also exemplified in the illustrative quotations: for example, the final quotation at self-quarantine, n. includes the phrasing ‘remain in self-quarantine for 14 days’ – ‘remain’ and ’14 days’ are both frequent collocates of ‘self-quarantine’.

I would like to know how you identify the first usage of a word, please.

We do this by searching in the vast number of databases available to us. There range from newspapers from different parts of the world, databases of periodicals and journals covering a large number of disciplines, manuscripts, and novels and books from the early days of printing right up until today. We also make use of Internet sources like Twitter, and newsgroups and forums. We always aim to try and find the first usage, but as new sources become available, naturally we will have access to more material. Apart from a relatively small number of items where we can be sure of the coinage (Covid-19 to name one), there is always the chance that earlier evidence could emerge.

Could you please provide an example of an Advanced Search that could be done in the online version of the OED that would produce results similar to those used in the webinar? For example, “the ten most salient collocates within five words of self-isolate*?” It is the “ten most salient collocates” phrase that isn’t immediately clear how to build into a query. Thank you. I would be using this as a model for other queries.

This information about salient collocates is retrieved from our corpus (which informs our analysis), not directly from the OED. Unfortunately, the corpus isn’t publicly available, but if it is helpful to you at all, you can learn more about how to use the Advanced Search effectively here.