Defining a Moment: The OED’s Extraordinary COVID-19 Update

In April 2020, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) published an ‘extraordinary update’ outside of its usual quarterly updates of new words and word revisions. This move was motivated by the significant linguistic developments arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. To give insight into these linguistic changes, the OED hosted a webinar: ‘The language of Covid-19: a special OED update’. Members of the RESEARCHconnect team attended the online event and we share some highlights with you here.

The webinar featured three OED language experts. Fiona McPherson, OED New Words Editor, spoke of how profound social upheaval, such as that caused by a pandemic, drives changes in language; the OED Science Editor, Patricia Stewart, gave an overview of how scientific terminology has developed throughout the pandemic; and, to conclude, OED Executive Editor, Kate Wild, explained how the dictionary has used corpora to track language use trends during the pandemic.

What’s New?

A single new word (neologism) has entered the dictionary: ‘Covid-19’ (but there may be more to come). Existing terms have been ‘adapted’ for use when talking about the pandemic, especially when referring to the social and economic impacts (isolation, quarantine and furlough, for example). There is a more widespread use of terms previously restricted to fields such as epidemiology and medicine.

Social Change Drives Language Change

McPherson stated that ‘social change drives language change’ and language gives a ‘snapshot of society’. As behaviour changes, so does terminology. It is then not surprising that a global pandemic has had such a widespread and profound effect on the English language.

Lexicographers track language development and definition changes as well as the stories and histories of words. In this sense, 2020 will stand out as a marker of the pandemic’s disruption of society and adaptation to a new situation.

Definition changes have occurred for words and phrases such as ‘infodemic’, ‘self-isolate’ (v)/‘self-isolation’ (adj), ‘social distancing’ (n) and ‘self-quarantined’ (adj). They reflect the changes that have occurred and are backed up by analysis of corpora, including the OED’s corpus of contemporary English.

Despite words sometimes appearing to be ‘new’, they turn out to be much older. In fact, a truly new word does not arise very often. ‘Covid-19’ is beyond doubt a truly new word. ‘Coronavirus’ is not a new word as it was first described in the 1960s (and entered the OED in 2008), however, it was usually only used within the fields of medicine and virology. Indeed, words we were not using at the beginning of the year have become completely normal and in widespread everyday use (eg ‘PPE’).

Some words have displayed a gradual shift in meaning. For example, ‘elbow bump’ originally entered the OED in 1902 and denoted an injury to the elbow. Only in 1981 did it start to mean a form of greeting, farewell or celebration. The first use of ‘elbow bump’ as a means of greeting to avoid the spread of germs was in 2006 during the avian flu outbreak. The term ‘infodemic’ (a proliferation of unsubstantiated information) was first coined in 2003 for a previous epidemic (SARS). Both ‘elbow bump’ and ‘infodemic’ now have OED usage examples from 2020 that relate to COVID-19.

Future neologisms (likened to ‘linguistic innovations’ by McPherson) may include ‘covidiot’, ‘zoombombing’, ‘pancession’ and ‘doomscrolling’. These words will be tracked and monitored by OED to assess whether their usage continues or peters out.


The Scientific Language of COVID-19

An (ordinary) OED update in July 2020 noticeably moved on from the social and economic aspects of the pandemic to the scientific and medical terminology to arise from it. Stewart stated that linguistic development progressed alongside the pandemic.

Much specialised medical and scientific language has become prominent in everyday discourse, which has been driven by news outlets and social media. Stewart stated that phrases such as ‘community transmission’ and ‘R number’ used in mainstream media were previously accompanied by a definition. However, this is now not always the case and shows ‘the presumed familiarity with them [the words/phrases] on the part of the audience’. It is certain that many existing specialist words and phrases have gained new prominence and widespread use. Stewart outlined the fact that although the OED is not a technical scientific dictionary, ‘scientific language is not just for scientists’.

Stewart noted that ‘Covid-19’ (in itself a shortening of ‘coronavirus disease 2019’) has variations and abbreviations, including Covid, C-19, CV-19 and corona (all of which now have entries in the OED). She also pondered whether any future coronavirus disease outbreaks would follow the same abbreviated format (eg Covid-35, Covid-50 etc).

The April 2020 OED extraordinary update definition of COVID-19 was expanded in the July 2020 update as new information about the effects of the virus on multiple organ systems became known. In turn, the definition may be amended in subsequent updates as even more knowledge is gained through research.


Tracking COVID-19 Language Using Corpora

Wild gave an outline of how corpora were used to inform the special OED update. The OED definition of a corpus is ‘a collection of written or spoken material in machine-readable form, assembled for the purpose of studying linguistic structures, frequencies, etc.’, and the OED makes use of a mixture of historic and modern corpora.

For the COVID-19 special update, the OED used the Oxford Monitor Corpus of English (among others). This corpus contains over 10 billion words of web-based news content from 2017 onwards. It is updated regularly so that language changes can be monitored as they occur. This monitoring considers aspects such as collocates (groups of words that often go together or are likely to occur together), spelling variations, regional variations and frequency of use.

The use of corpora in this way is not new or unique - it is a standard process used to update the OED as accurately as possible. For the special OED update, corpora were used to track rapid language change - new words, increases in frequency of use and shifts away from the solely scientific domain. Top corpus keywords enable OED editors to review and/or track particular words and thus decide if an update to that word is necessary.

From January to July 2020, top corpus keywords were an indicator of shifting social concerns. In January, the top keyword was ‘bushfire’. In February and March, the top keyword was ‘Covid-19’. This then changed to ‘PPE’, ‘reopen’, ‘defund’ and ‘covering’ in subsequent months (with ‘face’ being the most common collocate preceding the word ‘covering’).

Other words in the top 10 lists (for February to July) included ‘ventilator’, ‘pandemic’, ‘furlough’ and ‘lockdown’. Wild stated that the keyword analysis certainly shows how COVID-19 has ‘dominated the linguistic landscape’. Words related to other key events during this period also appeared in the top 10 lists, such as ‘impeachment’, ‘airstrike’, ‘racism’ and ‘brutality’. However, since February, most of the top 10 keywords relate to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wild noted that the OED has had many queries about the capitalisation of the word COVID-19, ie whether it is sentence case (Covid-19) or full capitals (COVID-19). The use of corpora is ideally suited to answering this question and the answer is that it can be either (neither is incorrect). Another factor is the country of origin. In the UK and South Africa, the split is fairly equal between the use of ‘Covid-19’ and ‘COVID-19’, whereas in Canada and Australia, the overwhelming usage trend is ‘COVID-19’. Indeed, RESEARCHconnect is an international product and it was decided at an early stage that the style used would be ‘COVID-19’. This follows the fully capitalised style set by the World Health Organization (WHO).


To Conclude

COVID-19 has certainly caused rapid social change on a worldwide scale, and linguists, along with epidemiologists, sociologists, virologists, economists etc, play a key role in helping us to understand these changes. The words we use to describe the pandemic have brought about an extraordinary update of the OED, but it does not seem unwise to conclude that, as we continue to discuss and learn more about it, there will be other COVID-19 related OED updates in the months and years to come.

The OED Word of the Year is a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest over the preceding 12 months. Previous winning words or expressions have included ‘climate emergency’ (2019), ‘toxic’ (2018), ‘youthquake’ (2017) and ‘post-truth’ (2016). Will the COVID-19 pandemic affect the choice for 2020? Our prediction: yes.

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