'Big Brother is watching you' - familiar to readers of George Orwell's post-war dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and viewers of the TV reality show 'Big Brother'. As we noted in our blog on the language of Brexit, new terms like these have a tendency to seep into everyday conversation via current events. Who knows, fuelled by a growing populism throughout Europe, Italexit or Nexit may follow, along with more prefix possibilities. Most of this year's new terms, however, relate to a socially distanced world: 'virtual happy hour', 'covideo party', 'quarantine and chill' and even 'coronababies'. 

Quantifying the speed of change

In a recent BBC article, sociolinguist Robert Lawson of Birmingham City University noted that "the pace of the linguistic change we're seeing with Covid-19 is unprecedented." The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has done the maths: between December 2019 and April 2020, the word 'coronavirus' went from 0.03 occurrences per million tokens (the smallest units of language collected and tracked) to 1,750 per million. 'Face covering' also saw an enormous boost between March and June, which may or may not have something to do with the inexplicable politicisation of masks in the US. As the same update also points out, certain corona terms remain fairly localised. 'Frontliner' has almost 50 occurrences per million tokens in the Philippines but a pitiful 0.9 in the UK and US.

Old words for new

Given that the term 'Covid-19' was only coined this February, it's no surprise that the other pandemic-related entries in the OED's most recent update were actually pre-existing terms that have been repurposed. 'Self-isolation', 'quarantine' and 'lockdown' are a few of the obvious examples, whereas acronyms like PUI (patient under investigation) and PUM (person under monitoring) were certainly more niche. Others, like 'wet market', have broken out of their regional usage and become worldwide phenomena (to the probable disappointment of wet market owners everywhere).

Dozens of new and repurposed terms have not yet entered the dictionary, but humans will continue to coin them so long as we need a way to easily communicate the rapid development of the pandemic. As Lawson notes, they "allow us to name whatever it is that's going on in the world. And once you can name the practices, the events, the social conditions around a particular event, it just gives people a shared vocabulary that they can all use as a bit of a shorthand. I think ultimately if you can name it, you can talk about it; and if you can talk about it, then it can help people cope and get a handle on really difficult situations."

Zoombombing and emojis

While they might never make the dictionary, sillier terms like 'covidiot' also have a vital role to play in Lawson's view. "If you can laugh at [the situation], it makes things more manageable almost, and just helps with people's psychological health more than anything else." And if you haven't even got a silly word for it, there's always emojis. We can all be grateful for the existence of Emojipedia, without which we might never have known that the face with a medical mask and the microbe emoji have seen a six-fold increase in usage on Twitter this year.

Less practical words, however, are unlikely to have an enduring impact. Brexit provides some insights here: the somewhat comedic 'Bregret' had its last moment in the spotlight in October 2019 and then virtually disappeared. 'Brexit' itself, on the other hand, may have dropped off in popularity but remains a stable search term in spite of falling out of the news. This shows just how firmly cemented it now is in our language. As for the coronavirus, OED senior editor Fiona McPherson considers 'Zoombombing' (the video call equivalent of a photobomb) the most likely to stand the test of time due to it describing lasting behavioural changes. We can rest assured that the overwhelming majority of these terms are ultimately due to decline and disappear - much like Covid-19 (we hope).

- Chris