The language of coronavirus

virusAll content correct as of 18 March 2020.

The world in the 21st century is a global village, and just how closely we live within it has become dramatically clear from coronavirus: this virus does not respect any borders. As the pandemic sweeps from country to country, and healthcare systems and governments grapple to overcome it, the language used to describe what is happening is evolving. There are not so much new words as new usages and combinations of words which, were it not for the fact that this concerns everyone, would just be medical or official jargon.

At the time of writing this blog – and the situation is changing radically day by day – the UK government is advocating social distancing*, and everyone is either considering self-isolating* or knows someone who is. We have moved beyond the point where frequent 20-second hand-washing or use of hand gel, and replacement of handshakes, hugs and kisses by the Ebola handshake* are sufficient measures to stop the spread of the virus. Anyone with the symptoms of a fever and/or a persistent cough has been told to quarantine themselves for 14 days. People over 70 or with underlying health conditions are particularly vulnerable to the virus. Everyone is being urged to work at home if possible. Of course, this does not include those in frontline services – doctors, nurses, transport workers, food manufacturers and outlets.

Coronavirus emerged in China, but it still is not clear who patient zero* was and when they were infected – in November or earlier. The world watched in horror as the number of confirmed cases and fatalities in China rose rapidly. Since then, what was an epidemic has turned into a pandemic, and Europe has become its epicentre. Each country is taking measures to try and contain the virus. Several have gone into complete lockdown. The British Government announced a four-phase programme of: contain, delay, research and mitigate. It held off calling for social distancing initially, partly as it was concerned with building herd immunity* in the British population. However, the government quickly changed tack after much criticism and comparison with more radical measures being taken elsewhere in Europe. Mass gatherings have already been stopped, and at this point it looks like only a matter of days before we see the closure of schools and universities. GPs have begun to hold remote consultations, by Skype and so on. To what extent the UK – like Italy, and China before it – will be playing catch-up from acting too slowly remains to be seen.

In the early days of the virus, it emerged in clusters or hotspots, but now has spread more widely through the population. Contact-tracing remains vital to stopping the spread. Buildings where people with the virus have been are deep-cleaned* before normal use can resume.

The economic effects of the pandemic are enormous. Stock markets have crashed; shares have tumbled. There are fears of a global recession. More immediately, people have started panicbuying*, stockpiling various goods. There has been such a run on items such as toilet paper in some places that supermarket shelves have been left bare. Some countries have placed blanket bans on flights from certain countries. The footfall in restaurants, etc. has fallen dramatically in the space of a few days. All kinds of businesses, particularly in the entertainment sphere, are in danger of going bust – and that would mean a loss of jobs.

There are new business opportunities, though, for companies that are capable of manufacturing ventilators, masks and other medical equipment in shortage, and for delivery services.

People can be tested for the virus with a swab. A new and faster testing kit is about to go onto the market, which could play an important part in identifying those who are infected but show no symptoms (= are asymptomatic), and thus slow down the spread even more.

It could be another year or so before scientists create a vaccine against Coronavirus. In the meantime, there are fears that the virus could mutate.

In times of crisis, we see the worst but also the best in our fellow humans. One big positive of this global village of ours is that we now know so much about each other – and hopefully care more about each other too. We are all in this together. Cutting ourselves off to protect ourselves has brought forth masses of humour and ingenuity in ways to keep each other’s spirits up, and underlines what social creatures we are. I’m sure we’ll all be relieved, though, when we can go back to being that big global village again.


social distancing              staying away from other people as much as possible

self-isolating                     staying away from other people completely

Ebola handshake             greeting someone by touching elbows with them

herd immunity                 resistance to the spread of a disease that results if enough people in a population have or develop immunity, e.g. through vaccination or through catching the disease

patient zero                       the first patient

deep-cleaned                   cleaned extremely carefully in order to remove the risk of infection

panicbuying                       buying large quantities of particular products because of fears of shortages

Janet Phillips is a Senior Editor in ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar. 

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

15 thoughts

  1. Thanks!! Is there a text for students Level pre intermediate? Si I can send the and word with it.

  2. It might be interesting to add that some people use the word “coronavirus” to refer to the disease — which is actually called COVID-19 — and drop the definite article (e.g., “catch coronavirus”). When “coronavirus” refers to the virus it is generally preceded by the definite article “the coronavirus”.

  3. Are the words ‘confinement’ and ‘deconfinement’ used? When you slowly reopen restaurants, bars… how do you call this phase?

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