New Words in English: how the Coronavirus is Changing our Vocabulary

Language is not something we consume passively. Our experiences define the words we use. By consequence, every significant social change always brings changes to our language, too. It’s simple: we need new words to express new concepts and how they affect our lives. 

The current COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. In a few short months, our everyday vocabulary got infected by many new words. And the changes were so drastic that they even warranted an unplanned update of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in April.

But are these words freshly-minted vocabulary entries? And what is their impact on translation? 

So many new words, right?

Well, not exactly. It might come as a surprise, but the OED registered only one new word in its special edition coronavirus update: COVID-19, a clipping of coronavirus disease 2019. All the other words that permeated our vernacular have existed in our dictionaries for a long time. What changed drastically was the frequency of their use

Coronavirus, for instance, dates back to the Sixties. But until recently, it’s rarely been seen or heard outside scientific circles. In five decades, newspapers have printed it less than two hundred times. 

An then came 2020. Between January and March, the frequency of coronavirus saw a nearly 20-fold increase. In fact, it became more frequent than the use of time – one of the most widely used words in the English language.

True, there’s also social media, giving us new words like upperware, infits, and rona. But it remains to be seen whether any of these coinages will stand the test of time and mature into fully-fledged members of the English dictionary.

Old words, new meanings

Another exciting aspect is the shift in meaning that the pandemic produced on old dictionary entries.

For example, self-isolation was first recorded as early as 1834. But at the time, it was used to describe countries that detached themselves economically or politically from the rest of the world. Flash-forward two hundred years and its OED description reads as follows:

“self-imposed isolation undertaken in order to avoid catching or transmitting infectious disease, or as part of a community initiative to inhibit its spread.”

Here’s another old friend in a new vest: social distancing. In the 1950s, it meant an attitude rather than a physical term. It was used to describe people who decided intentionally to withdraw themselves socially. Now, it means to physically distance oneself from others to contain the spread of the virus.

How do these new words (and meanings) affect translators? 

One thing worth noting is how different language variants are reacting to these vocabulary shifts. Lockdown is widely used in the UK and Canada, but in Singapore, they seem to prefer the term circuit breaker. The same applies to other widespread languages, such as Spanish. 

In short, the pandemic is making the gaps between language variants grow wider. Now more than ever, what we need is localization, not translation.

Here are a few things translation agencies will need to do if they want to cope with localizing new words:

– build and update glossaries for each language variant

– research existing language variant corpora 

– increase scouting for variant-specific translators 

– build robust quality checks to ensure consistency

The latest entry about medical interpreters is here

To learn more about how we manage localization in different language variants at LingPerfect, drop us a line or use the contact form below.