COVID-19 buzzwords: will they spread and survive?


 York University linguistics expert available on the future of pandemic-themed vocabulary

TORONTO, May 13, 2020 – Ever since the World Health Organization named the novel coronavirus disease COVID-19, on February 11, language lovers around the globe have been spreading the word. But will all the buzzwords that have flowed from it – such as covidiot, coronnials, quarantini and zoombombing – stand the test of time?

“I can see some of the words lasting quite well, at least until we are well past the pandemic, like covid 19 for all those pounds of weight gain. I can also see words like infodemic lasting, as they have some clear utility beyond just this situation,” said Sheila Embleton, Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

Thanks to social media, many of these words will also get into dictionaries, at least online.

“Once there is some stability to the usage, attested by many using this vocabulary, these words will find their way into online dictionaries very quickly,” said Embleton. “It used to take forever when there were only print editions. But now, they can be updated all the time with online versions, databases, etcetera.”

Considering that many words have gained popularity in such a short period, organizations such as the American Dialect Society and the American Name Society, which announce a new word of the year and name of the year, may have a tough time making their choices in the coming year, she said.

Language-specific puns are also becoming popular, as well as homonyms – words that sound like or are spelled the same as another word but have a different meaning. Those are quickly spreading beyond local and regional use, to social media platforms and countries like Canada where multilingualism prevails. “For example, terms like coronaspeck are now being used widely,” said Embleton, who speaks several languages. Speck meaning bacon, the German term refers to fat accumulated during coronavirus quarantine.

Embleton is available to comment on:

  • The long-term influence of COVID-19 on languages and linguistics around the world
  • The possibility of pandemic-themed words getting added to both online and print dictionaries
  • The role of social media in spreading coronavirus vocabulary
  • The global reach of language-specific homonyms and puns

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