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COVID emerges as the top word of 2020

By Heng Weili in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-07-14 09:35

Global Language Monitor, an Austin, Texas, data research company that tracks trends in language usage worldwide, announced Friday in a midyear update that COVID is the top word of 2020.

A computer image created by Nexu Science Communication together with Trinity College in Dublin, shows a model structurally representative of a betacoronavirus which is the type of virus linked to COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus linked to the current outbreak, shared with Reuters on February 18, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

"It's no surprise that COVID has risen to the top of the rankings," said Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief word analyst at GLM. "However, COVID has received the highest number of citations ever recorded in our global survey. In fact, COVID has outranked all previous words of the year in the 21st century by a factor of 100, or more."

COVID is a rather nasty-looking acronym, which is appropriate for a virulent disease. As you likely know, it stands for coronavirus disease, which is the deadly stage of the illness after a person has been infected.

The Latin root of corona, which means crown, is much more mellifluous, whereas COVID looks like the name of a failed Chevrolet sports car. (I'm not thinking of the troubled Corvair, which had something of an early 1960s cool allure, even though it had to live in the shadow of Chevy's Corvette and Ford's Mustang).

Or maybe it's a better name for an obsolete video format.

Curiously, COVID outpaced its seemingly more prevalent cousin, COVID-19 - the number representing the year 2019 that the dreaded disease emerged - which registered as the No 2 word of the year.

GLM describes COVID-19 as "the official name of the virus caused by the SARS CoV-2 virus, so named in WHO's International Classification of Diseases".

Coronavirus at No 2

Not surprisingly, five of GLM's top 20 words are related to the pandemic: regular "coronavirus" was third, followed by "corona" at fourth. At No 5 was "face mask", the oft-maligned bane of outdoor bar patrons across the country. "Social distancing" weighed in at No 8.

Now even the floor of the main aisle at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City has stickers every 6 feet, prompting parishioners to keep their distance.

Apparently, "social distancing "jumped in usage in 2003, around the time of the SARS epidemic, according to Google data.

But some citations list its use as far back as the 1920s, in the field of sociology.

The World Health Organization announced at a March 20 news conference that it was moving away from the term "social distancing".

Nurture mental health

"We've been saying 'physical distancing' because it's important to remain physically separate but socially connected," said Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious diseases epidemiologist with the WHO. She said that people should nurture their mental health and that of their loved ones during the pandemic.

"There's no lockdown on laughter," she said. "There's no lockdown on talking to your family and finding ways to connect."

Social distancing also shares an adjective with social media, the source of much of the discord in our current culture.

But it's likely too late to distance ourselves from the term.

"My main concern is that this switch in terminology - in the midst of the crisis - violates one of the key principles of effective risk communication, which is to ensure that there is clarity and consistency in messaging," Lori Peek, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote in an email to CNN in April.

Pandemic-related terms also populate the second half of the GLM list.

"Flatten the curve" - which GLM describes as "during a pandemic, the ability to manage the number of cases so as to not overwhelm the hospital system" - registered at No 11. It was followed by "lockdown" at No 12.

"Zoom meeting" was No 15, a nod to the popular videoconferencing app that has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, sometimes with embarrassing moments for its at-home participants.

"Quarantine" rated 16th, with "symptoms" and "outbreak" completing the lineup at Nos 19 and 20, respectively.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention No 9: "trade war". GLM describes it as a "colossal struggle between (the) US and China with worldwide repercussions".

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