The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has been updated to include “COVID-19” and other words that have seen an increase in usage since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Social distancing”, “self-isolation” and “to flatten the curve” are among the words to be added, reflecting the government-issued guidelines for the population to stay at home as much as possible. 

The OED, which is usually updated four times a year, deviated from its schedule to account for unprecedented usage of these words in light of the pandemic. 

Bernadette Patton, Executive Editor of the dictionary, said that “it is a consistent theme of lexicography that great social change brings great linguistic change, and that has never been truer than in this current global crisis.”

The OED has also published its list of keywords – words that have seen a significant upsurge in usage in the past month. March’s list saw “COVID-19”, “pandemic” and “distancing” as its top three keywords, with “sanitiser”, “ventilator” and “PPE” also making the top twenty. All twenty keywords bear some connection to the coronavirus outbreak.

Patton notes that the OED has historically been used to track language usage during outbreaks of the disease in the past, helping us to see “how our forebears grappled linguistically with the epidemics they witnessed and experienced”. 

The word “coronavirus” was first added to the dictionary in 2008, but has seen an increase from approximately 100 uses per million words in January 2020 to over 1900 uses per million words in March, based on the OED’s survey of 8 billion words used in web-based news content. 

When contacted, Senior Editor of the OED Fiona McPherson commented that this has been “a significant update” for the dictionary, and “it is likely that future updates will include more words that have become so familiar over the course of the last few months”. The dictionary’s next quarterly update will be released in June.

Image Credit to Philafrenzy/ Wikimedia Commons


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