Life

“It’s Kind of Catchy”

Novel coronavirus, COVID, ’rona, and how we settle on names for deadly outbreaks.

A collage of newspaper headline–style tear-outs of words like "COVID-19" and "coronavirus."
Photo illustration by Slate

This is part of Six Months In, a Slate series reflecting on half a year of coronavirus lockdown in America.

The week the U.S. shutdowns started, I remember sending a bunch of freaked-out texts, worried about whether anyone in my life had “it.” I didn’t have to include an antecedent. They all knew what it was. This was a fitting start to a six-month stretch in which we talked incessantly about the virus, the disease it causes, and the ripple effects, but never quite decided what to call all of it. For example, when, I was thinking the other day, did everybody start calling it “Covid,” just “Covid,” no 19?

The World Health Organization gave the disease its official name, COVID-19, in February. Reference resources raced to update their recommendations in response. But John Kelly, a senior research editor at Dictionary.com, recognizes that that’s not what everyone calls it. “I jotted down a number of terms that we’ve used since the beginning of the year in reference to … let’s call it the pandemic,” he said, before rattling off “COVID-19, COVID for short [or Covid or covid], coronavirus, novel coronavirus, nCoV, SARS-CoV-2, and then for short, corona, and a little bit more gallows humor, ’rona.” That list actually leaves out yet more names: severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, the COVID-19 virus, and, in the category of offensive names sometimes favored by our president, the “China virus” or the “Wuhan flu.”

How did we get to “COVID”? When early news of the virus emerged at the end of 2019, it was often described as a “mysterious pneumonia.” Before long, scientists identified the cause of the sickness as a type of coronavirus, a family of viruses that usually lead to mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses. There had been six known coronaviruses, including one that caused SARS and one that caused MERS; this was a seventh one. This is a point that would go on to be one of the most widely confused aspects of the virus: It was not simply “coronavirus” or “the coronavirus,” but a new, previously undocumented coronavirus. Some news coverage in January and February omitted that distinction and used “coronavirus” without an article preceding it. The majority of Americans, including me, had never heard this word before, and the fact that now it seemed to be coming to kill us started worrying us, to put it mildly. The rapper Cardi B perhaps best expressed this frantic feeling when, also during that fateful week in March, she posted a short video of herself memorably shouting, “Coronavirus! Coronavirus!” (Naturally, it was quickly remixed into a dance track.)

This way of talking about the virus—“He has coronavirus, she has coronavirus”—was technically incorrect but nevertheless got lodged in many of our heads. We were supposed to call it “the novel coronavirus,” but that cause seemed to me to be about as doomed as the “Actually, Frankenstein is the doctor” conversation. When I dutifully used “the novel coronavirus” in my articles, I thought of my poor colleagues on the copy desk: Good luck enforcing that. I didn’t think it’d ever catch on. I guess I was half right.

That brings us to another commonly misunderstood point: The novel coronavirus is not the same as the disease itself. That “mysterious pneumonia” needed a name of its own. “Most viruses that cause human disease are named for the disease itself,” said Stephen Berger, a founder of and medical adviser at the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network, in an email. “The virus that causes measles is called ‘Measles virus’ and the virus of influenza is called ‘Influenza virus.’ ”

So “coronavirus” was never going to make it into the disease’s official name. But naming a disease is a trickier and more political process than you might expect: In 2009, after an outbreak of an influenza virus, the name “swine flu” caught on, and it caused some diplomatic issues: In Israel, where a large portion of the populace doesn’t eat pork, the name was considered offensive. But Israel’s suggestion to rename the flu for where it originated, Mexico, did not sit well with Mexico. “The longer it takes for a virus species to be named, the more likely it is that something else will stick as the common name—like how H1N1 is commonly referred to as swine flu,” the BBC explained earlier this year. WHO acknowledged the importance of the official name of the virus overlapping with its common name. The goal was to come up with something easy and nonoffensive. Hence COVID-19—or CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease, and 19 for 2019. Formerly, this disease was referred to as “2019 novel coronavirus” or “2019-nCoV.”: “It was specifically named this way to avoid calling it the China virus or the Wuhan virus,” said Howard Markel, who teaches the history of medicine at the University of Michigan. “COVID-19 is a very generic name, but that’s purposeful. It starts and ends with a hard consonant. It’s a good name; it’s kind of catchy.”

Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, affirmed my hunch about the rise of “Covid” using metrics from lookups on the dictionary’s website, Google Trends, and a searchable database of online news. “The term ‘coronavirus’ peaked early on in late January and then again in late March, with ‘COVID-19’ echoing it, trailing close behind, and then finally overtaking it,” he said. “And then what we see is the term ‘COVID’ without 19 has been making this slow rise in the background.” He also compared printed news sources with transcripts of spoken news stories. “In printed news, ‘Covid-19,’ which is the official name of the disease, did overtake ‘coronavirus.’ In spoken news, it doesn’t. ‘Coronavirus’ stays No. 1.” Sokolowski guessed that this was due to scrupulous print journalists “holding the line.”

One such person might be Paula Froke, lead editor of the Associated Press Stylebook. “We recognized in probably mid-January that we needed to have a stylebook entry on it,” Froke said. One of their early decisions was to nix the word novel. “Scientists certainly in the early days were talking about ‘the novel coronavirus,’ ” she said. “We viewed that as largely geeky talk, somewhat Victorian-sounding. ‘New’ works perfectly well.” Other decisions were in keeping with this perhaps-surprising informality: “As time went on, we said it’s OK to simply call it ‘the coronavirus’ even though that terminology implies there’s only one coronavirus, which isn’t the case, but nonetheless in context, there’s no misunderstanding.”

The next item on the agenda is deciding if the AP too should allow “Covid,” sans the 19. “We’re literally in the middle of discussing it,” Froke said. “There are differing opinions. It’s safe to say in no cases will we allow ‘Covid’ on first reference without the 19. I would say we’re probably leaning toward allowing ‘Covid’ in at least in casual references and headlines.” All-caps or not remains a whole ’nother question.

It sounds like COVID, with and without the 19, will be sticking around for a while. “My theory is that Covid and Covid-19 are going to prevail,” said Kelly, of Dictionary.com. At first, COVID-19, with the number in it, struck him as “like something out of science fiction.” But he was surprised how quickly that shifted. “Covid has so changed our lives and our language that we’re seeing this technical term easily coming off of our tongues in everyday speech and writing.”