Normally, we track new words for years before seeing enough evidence to convince us they have the staying power to merit inclusion in our traditional dictionary.
Well, it’s not a normal day at the office. We’re all working at home, for one thing.
COVID-19 has changed the dictionary world as suddenly and profoundly as it has changed all of our personal and professional lives. In a period of just a few weeks, we’ve acquired a new vocabulary to talk about novel coronavirus.
And so our lexicographers have updated Dictionary.com with some of these new coronavirus words and senses to help you stay informed and safe during these unprecedented times. Find the complete list at the end of the article.
New coronavirus words for public health
Traditionally, there are subject-specific dictionaries, like medical dictionaries, for those words that only professionals in the field would know and use. Suddenly, however, everyday people know and use words like asymptomatic and prodrome, or “an early symptom that signals the onset of an illness or disease.” Amid the pandemic, we’re all speaking like epidemiologists.
We’re now familiar with specialized lingo, including abbreviations like PPE (personal protective equipment). You might read an article in your local paper about the gym or the grocery store that educates you about fomites or a sneeze’s viral load. Words that we might have known primarily from other contexts, like corona or novel, now have newly significant meanings, so we also revised existing entries to add definitions for these specific scientific senses.
New coronavirus words in society and the economy
Social behaviors and government guidance are also common topics of conversation. We’ve added noun and verb definitions to social distance, a word with a long history in the field of sociology, whose public health meanings appeared among specialists in that field less than 20 years ago. But today, at the forefront of our minds are newer definitions of the term, especially “to maintain a safe or appropriate distance from other people, especially to slow the spread of a contagious illness or disease.”
Shelter in place is not a new designation (it dates back 40 years), but it has a specific meaning, unlike the more general expression hunker down. And while containment has many meanings, we’ve updated the one that applies to public health and safety.
Social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines have, of course, caused society—and the economy—great strain, too. Hard times put grim and disheartening stories into the headlines, so our lexicographers have been evaluating and updating definitions for words like profiteering, price gouging, and gouge.
We can still have fun
Humanity also appears to be hard-wired to take the building blocks for communication and use them for fun, whether with puns and double entendres, or tongue twisters and silly noises. Social media is ripe for this kind of language play, as you see with riffs on memes and phrasal templates designed to be manipulated for humor—if often gallows humor, in the case of the coronavirus crisis.
So, it was only a matter of time before COVID-19 became rona online. The rona and other short variants began showing up in irreverent or funny comments by mid-March, just as the grim realities of the pandemic were becoming clear.
Curious about more slang terms that have sprung up amid the coronavirus? We’ve been tracking them here.
Language in the time of COVID-19
Linguists will tell you that it’s not unusual for language to become highly productive and innovative in times of upheaval and tragedy. But why?
War, slavery, economic collapse, and mass migration have historically jolted people into unforeseen contact that changes their language. Not dissimilarly, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust us out of our regular linguistic bubbles and brought us into contact with specialized vocabulary we couldn’t have predicted needing.
The virus has abruptly upended life for many. In response, we see people doing what human beings have always done—acquiring and inventing new words to understand and to exercise control over the world. The team at Dictionary.com will be here alongside you, continuing to document, explain, and share the words that are helping us make sense of our new reality.
New coronavirus dictionary entries
The following are brand-new entries to our core dictionary. We’ve highlighted a few definitions of particular interest.
COVID-19: coronavirus disease 2019: a potentially severe respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus and characterized by fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.
novel coronavirus: a coronavirus that has not previously been detected or reported.
rona: Slang. COVID-19.
noun. an official order, issued during an emergency, that directs people to stay in the indoor place or building that they already occupy and not to leave unless absolutely necessary.
verb. to stay in a safe indoor place or building during an emergency.
Updated dictionary definitions
In addition to new entries, we’ve also added, expanded, or revised definitions or examples at the following words on Dictionary.com.
asymptomatic: (of a person with a disease or other medical condition) experiencing no symptoms or evidence of illness or abnormality.
containment: an act or policy of limiting the expansion or spread of a natural disaster, contagious disease, or other dangerous thing.
corona: any part or structure suggestive of a crown or curved crown shape.
Pathology. a coronavirus, especially COVID-19.
epidemiology: the study, assessment, and analysis of public health concerns in a given population; the tracking of patterns and effects of diseases, environmental toxins, natural disasters, violence, terrorist attacks, etc.
PPE: personal protective equipment: specialized clothing or other wearable gear that minimizes one’s exposure to sources of illness or injury, and in medical contexts helps to inhibit the spread of infection to others.
noun. a safe or appropriate distance or amount of space between two people or between people in a group.
verb. to maintain a safe or appropriate distance from other people, especially to slow the spread of a contagious illness or disease.
to place or keep at a safe or appropriate distance from other people.
For health, safety, and medical emergencies or updates on the novel coronavirus pandemic, please visit the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organization). For more words related to the coronavirus, see our glossary. And for more important distinctions between confusing words related to the coronavirus and its societal impact, see our articles pandemic vs. epidemic, quarantine vs. isolation, respirator vs. ventilator, virus vs. bacteria, and contagious vs. infectious.