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COVID-19 adds new words to the dictionary!

By Suhit K Sen
Last updated on: May 24, 2020 12:58 IST
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'Great social change brings great linguistic change, and that has never been truer than in this current global crisis.'
Suhit K Sen lists the changes one can expect to find in the dictionary post the pandemic.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com

 

The Oxford English Dictionary, that most venerable lexical authority, undertook an unscheduled and extraordinary update, between its routine quarterly ones.

It was occasioned by an explosion of new linguistic usages driven by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the words the OED has now included in its new edition are entirely new coinages.

The most obvious amongst them is the word COVID-19 itself, which, as we all know by now, is a contraction of the phrase 'coronavirus disease 2019'.

The greater popularity of this usage over the more technical name of the virus -- SARS-CoV 2, an abbreviation for severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus 2, presumably hasn't quite become so viral, as hasn't 2019-nCoV.

The word 'infodemic', too, makes a debut.

It shouldn't be very difficult to figure out that it has been created by fusing the words information and epidemic to refer to the explosion of information about the pandemic and matters related to it.

The part of the new word derived from the root epidemic should forever remind us that just as much of the information available is helpful, a far greater part ranges from the unhelpful to insanely dangerous disinformation.

The words 'self-isolate' and 'self-quarantine"', both in their verb form and the various noun and adjectival forms derived from them -- self-isolation, self-isolated, self-isolating, self-quarantine as noun, and, self-quarantined -- are also additions to the OED repository.

Their meanings are obvious.

Not so obvious is the meaning of a new phrasal addition -- shelter in place, not because of prima facie semantic confusion, but more because of its mismatch with reality.

In India, tens of thousands of people are being forced to shelter in place, in other words, stay put, much against their will in surroundings that fit uneasily with our intuitive grasp of the word 'shelter'.

Another, somewhat recondite, phrase that has become a part of our daily life is 'flatten the curve'.

Many people, including some who use it, are not really sure what it means precisely.

For their benefit, the OED defines it thus: '...to take measures designed to reduce the rate at which infection spreads during an epidemic, with the aim of lowering the peak daily number of new cases and extending the period over which new cases occur'.

A number of abbreviations, or initialisms, too, find their place in the new edition.

PPE and WFH are pre-eminent.

The former as we now know means 'personal protective equipment', which refers to clothing or equipment designed to provide their users protection against hazardous substances or environments, or prevent transmission of infectious diseases.

WFH, or working from home, is, of course, self-explanatory.

Both these contractions had been in use earlier.

PPE was first noted in 1977, but its use was narrowly confined to health care and emergency professionals.

WFH seems to have been noted in 1995, but had restricted currency, like the practice itself.

Other words or phrases have existed before, but have taken on completely new, sometimes misleading, meaning.

'Social distancing', we are told, was a phrase first noted in 1957 to mean exactly what it sounds like: Aloofness or the attempt to distance oneself from others socially.

Now, it has come to mean, for reasons unknown, physical distancing.

The practice of maintaining a minimum distance from other people whilst being out in public places.

One phrase, at least, has acquired an additional meaning.

'Elbow bump' used to mean a blow with or to the elbow and the injury caused by such a blow.

It now additionally means, 'a gesture (usually of greeting or farewell) in which two people lightly tap their elbows together as an alternative to a handshake or embrace, esp. in order to reduce the risk of spreading or catching an infectious disease'.

A word now very much a part of our lives, usually not pleasantly, does not seem to have been included in the dictionary afresh: 'Lockdown'.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1999 edition) says it means 'the confining of prisoners to their cells, typically in order to regain control during a riot'.

Today, it means enforced confinement of citizens to their homes with varying exceptions being made to permit people to venture out on essential work.

Given the fact that many people, especially in the West, consider this an infringement of quotidian democratic rights, this new shade of meaning is no doubt ironic.

It is, of course, a matter of contestation whether 'draconian' regimes of confinement are necessary to prevent or reduce transmission of SARS-CoV 2 and whether the 'cure is worse than the disease' given the economic carnage it is wreaking, especially on the poor in developing countries.

But many will feel that the prison analogy is apt.

At any rate, the last word goes to Bernadette Paton, executive editor of the OED: 'It is a consistent theme of lexicography that great social change brings great linguistic change, and that has never been truer than in this current global crisis.'

Production: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com

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