April 15, 2020

Oxford English Dictionary charts sociolinguistic impact of Covid-19


Sitting at home thinking up puns on the word “Quar,” referring to your “covid boyfriend,” or texting your friends about what you’ll all do once “the ‘rona rolls through,” you are participating in an extremely rare spike in new word usage.

Perhaps those are a little slangy for our friends at the Oxford English Dictionary, but they too have charted an exponential rise in new word usage over the short period the new coronavirus has dominated our lives.

As Alison Flood reports for The Guardian, the word that has seen the biggest boost is, of course, Covid-19. Some other hits of the corona era have been our new everyday terms: WFH, social distancing, and self-isolation.

As of last month, the OED’s top 20 keywords (based on frequency of usage) all had to do with coronavirus. The cultural evolution leading up to that point is in itself fascinating.  As flood writes:

“In January, the words mainly relate to naming and describing the virus: coronavirus, SARS, virus, human-to-human, respiratory, flu-like,” said the OED in an analysis. “By March, the keywords reflect the social impact of the virus, and issues surrounding the medical response: social distancing, self-isolation and self-quarantine, lockdown, non-essential (as in non-essential travel), and postpone are all especially frequent, as are PPE and ventilator.”

And while the steepness of these usage curves is rare, even rarer is the process by which the OED has chosen to integrate these words to the dictionary, adding them and their definitions immediately, between the scheduled quarterly updates.

Unofficially, they have moved from a quarterly schedule to a Quar(terly) schedule.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.