Blog – It’s All About Language

Coronavirus Glossary: The Key to Understanding COVID Terminology

The COVID-19 pandemic has upturned many people’s lives, and like other life-changing events, it has had an impact on our lexicon. Although by no means unheard of before, many words like quarantine and self-isolation are now embedded in our psyche. In this blog, we look at some of the most topical words associated with COVID-19 and the meanings they have acquired in this pandemic context.




It is unusual for so many health, medical and science-related terms to enter public consciousness at around the same time. Their ubiquity is due to several factors, such as their continual use by the media and the unprecedented speed the virus has spread. In April, the Oxford English Dictionary added several new words in an unscheduled update. All were related to the pandemic.

Some of the words and terms are reassuring; others provide essential guidance, and then some help to raise a laugh. The fact is that COVID-19 terminology has permeated not just medical and pharmaceutical and business terminology as well.

As translators, translating to and from English, French, Spanish, German and several other European and international languages, we need to be aware of the particular context and time in which such terms are used.

Here are some of the keywords in English to help you understand the outbreak.


COVID-19 has been colloquially branded as ‘The Coronavirus’ and for many, it is the only Coronavirus! Several types of coronaviruses have appeared over time, all belonging to the same family of viruses. They are known to cause a range of respiratory infections from the common cold to potentially fatal diseases.

A newly identified type of coronavirus known as SARS-CoV2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) caused the outbreak of the respiratory illness we now know as COVID-19. It spreads through droplets released into the air when someone coughs, sneezes or talks, and was first reported in December 2019 in Wuhan City in China.



This term refers to an accumulation of cases of a disease. A coronavirus cluster occurs where there is a concentration of cases in the same area at the same time.

Contact Tracing

In public health matters, contact tracing is the process of identifying and monitoring people who may have come into contact with an infectious person. Contact tracing is a bit like detective work. As soon as it is known that someone has the virus or has tested positive for it, they are isolated to stop them from spreading the disease. Health officials work with that individual to help them recall everyone they might have been in contact with during the time they were infectious.

Then those people (known as contacts) are approached and as sensitively as possible are warned about their possible exposure to an infectious person. Contacts are encouraged to stay at home for 14 days and to maintain strict social distancing.

Contact tracing is used to break chains of transmission and is one of the oldest public health tactics around. In the case of the current pandemic, contact tracing has been successfully used in South Korea and Germany, among other places.

Travel Bubble and Travel Corridor

Many countries have closed their borders in response to the global spread of the virus, and consequently, tourism has been among the hardest-hit industries. As countries come out of lockdowns and ease restrictions, some are talking about setting up travel bubbles or travel corridors.

These are agreements between participating nations that allow people to move freely without entering quarantine when they arrive at their destination or return home.

Epidemic and Pandemic

An epidemic is when an infectious disease spreads rapidly to many people within a community, population or region.

A pandemic is when there is a wide geographic distribution of a virus (an epidemic that has spread over a large area). It comes from the Greek word ‘Pandemos’ – ‘pan’ meaning ‘all’ and ‘demos’ meaning people.


The separation of a person or group of people who may have been exposed to SARS-CoV2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This can help prevent the possible spread of the disease.

Quarantine, of course, is not a new word. It comes from the Latin for 40 and was originally 40 days in which people or animals entering a country or port had to be isolated to avoid the spread of disease.

However, in COVID terms, the word is typically associated with a two-week period, which is thought to be the maximum incubation period of the virus. Some countries have imposed a 14-day quarantine period for passengers upon arrival, which means they have to self-isolate for two weeks.


Pre-COVID-19, the word ‘Lockdown’ would imply a forceful loss of freedom by an authority. However, in COVID times, there is no such association with human rights violations.

Lockdown is an emergency measure in which public buildings are closed, and people are told to stay in their homes to limit exposure and control transmission of the disease. Lockdowns have been imposed in several countries as part of drastic efforts to save lives.


Home Isolation and Self-Isolation

This is when someone who is confirmed to be ill with the virus stays at home and avoids all contact with healthy people around them.

Self-Distancing and Social Distancing

Avoiding mass gatherings, not standing in groups, and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet (2 metres) between yourself and others whenever possible is known as social distancing and self-distancing.

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States, limiting face-to-face contact with others is one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to the virus.

In pre-COVID times, there was nothing noble about these terms. They were associated with hermits and people with mental health problems. However, during the pandemic, self-distancing and social distancing are not only acceptable, but some would say our strict moral duty.

Levelling the Curve or Flattening the Curve

The curve being levelled or flattened is an epidemic curve, a statistical chart used to visualise the number of infected people needing hospital care over time. A tall skinny curve is bad because it represents many cases in a short period.

The lower and flatter the curve, the better because it means the peak number of people requiring care is reduced. Therefore hospitals are less likely to be overwhelmed.

Flattening the curve does not necessarily mean there is a decrease in the number of cases, it’s just that they are spread out over a more extended period.

Essential and Nonessential

Essential refers to those businesses and services that are necessary, even during a pandemic.
They maintain the health and welfare of communities and include but are not limited to pharmacies and other medical/healthcare facilities, agriculture, food processing and supermarkets.

Nonessential businesses and services are not deemed necessary during emergencies and can include theatres and cinemas, barbers and hairdressers, nail salons, shopping malls and gyms.

Covidient and Covidiot

Covidient is a portmanteau word in which parts of words are combined into a new word. In this case, ‘COVID’ and ‘obedient’ have been blended to refer to a person who follows government directives and orders during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, covidiot blends “COVID’ and ‘idiot’ to mean someone who ignores COVID-related measures such as social distancing.

Immunity and Herd Immunity

Immunity is our body’s ability to resist a particular infection, which it does by producing proteins called antibodies that neutralise invading disease particles. Therefore, if you are immune to a disease, it does not affect you.

The term herd immunity refers to when most people in a community are immune to an infectious disease; it cannot spread to those who are not immune.

For example, if 80% of the population in a town is immune to an infection, they won’t get sick when they encounter an infected person. Therefore, they cannot pass on the illness to others. In this way, the spread of an infectious disease is controlled.


Some words enter the lexicon but quickly fall out of common usage. What do you think will happen to the new COVID terms and nuances. Will they stand the test of time or disappear along with the pandemic?

2020 may well be the year that created challenges not just for the economy and the health system but also for linguists and translators.


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