20th April 2020

From Covidiot to Infodemic: Coronavirus lexicon explained

By Sean Martin

Social change has a tendency to bring about language change, either through need or prestige. Social conditions might dictate the speed at which change takes place, but language adapts to reflect changes in society and allows accommodation of new ideas. The current times are no exception and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) points out:

‘It is a rare experience for lexicographers to observe an exponential rise in usage of a single word in a very short period of time, and for that word to come overwhelmingly to dominate global discourse, even to the exclusion of most other topics. Covid-19, a shortening of coronavirus disease 2019, and its various manifestations has done just that’.

As well as new words entering the language, there is also change in meaning and use (semantic change) to think about. Since the emergence of Covid-19, new words have been coined and there are others that have achieved wider or new meanings and come out of their 19th century isolation.

The Covid-19 lexicon and the changes to English that it has promoted have made me laugh and think as well as applying some very valuable knowledge from the history of the English language module of my M.A. in English linguistics and very applicable to our English classes and teacher development; despite what I can hear from the cynics with their, ‘it’s not any use in the classroom’, ‘my students aren’t going to be interested’, ‘you’re not living in the real world of teaching’ … Take a break guys and show some interest; you never know …

There’s a little terminology involved but not too much. Anyway, some of the words, phrases and combinations have been around for some time and not necessarily coined (i) from or for the Covid-19 pandemic and others are genuinely new. There are probably many coinages and those that have undergone semantic change, but the following represent a few.


A new portmanteau word (ii) that has done the rounds on social media or gone ‘coronaviral’ (according to Ben Cost of the New York Post). A ‘covidiot’ is someone who ignores the public health and safety warnings e.g. for social distancing and/or who panic buys or is a hoarder; we’ve all seen or heard about the toilet rolls.


We’re all familiar with the drive-through, something like Mcdonalds, but the drive-through’s been around since the 1930’s. This was a drive-through bank and although it's probably more common with fast food, there are drive-through grocery shops. Essentially it’s a place where you can get some kind of service without getting out of your car. Drive-through has been semantically broadened (iii) as a result of Covid-19; it now includes Drive-Through corona virus testing in many countries.


I’d not seen or heard of ‘furlough’ for ages before it began to appear as people were being ‘laid off’ as a result of the effects of Covid-19. My recollection from the ‘John Wayne’ type WWII films was that ‘furlough’ related to leave. As the granting of leave in the military from around the late 18th century, ‘furlough’ would have had quite a positive association. It stayed this way it seems until the 1940’s when it was applied to ‘laying off’ or temporarily suspending civilian employees of the military; it’s becoming more pejorative (iv). It raises its head again in recent times, when ‘furlough’ has become more euphemistic mas a term for enforced unpaid leave.

Social distancing

In current times, ‘social distancing’ has come to be seen as an important measure and social activity to reduce the spread of Covid-19. It seems to have been an expression with negative associations since the 1950’s; ‘The action or practice of maintaining a degree of remoteness or emotional separation from another person or social group’, according to the OED and only more recently in 2004 was it’s meaning broadened to include ‘limiting access to and contact between people in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease …’ This latter meaning suggests a social responsibility and perhaps more positive than the ‘social aloofness’ or superiority.


Another portmanteau word, but this time not coined from Covid-19. It does though have its origins in 2003 from the Washington Post’s reporting of SARS. It might be likened to ‘fake news’ as the OED makes reference to ‘… unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy or event that disseminates rapidly and uncontrollably through news, online and social media and is regarded as intensifying public speculation or anxiety’.

Whether you’re ‘self-isolating’, in ‘lockdown’, ‘social distancing’, simply interested or looking for new ways to engage your learners, a delve into the origins and development of words and phrases might prove useful. A good resource is www.etymonline.com, which I’ve used for this as well as the OED (since I’m lucky enough to have access). If you’re thinking of applications in the classroom, have a look at Jim Scrivener’s ‘Learning Teaching’ (pp 206-208), where there’s a wealth of ideas about what learners can do with vocabulary. This is a starting point … and go into it with an open mind.

  i The invention of a new word

  ii A word blending two words or parts of two words to create a new word

  iii Change where the meaning of a word becomes broader or more inclusive than its earlier meaning

  iv A word expressing contempt or disapproval

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Sean Martin over the last 10 years in Hong Kong has worked in a variety of TESOL settings, including teaching academic English to secondary and tertiary learners. He has also taught professional adults of various nationalities to develop their English skills across a range of commercial sectors, including law, aviation, hospitality and leisure. In addition to his work at EfA as a Trinity Colege London cert.TESOL tutor and delivering CPD workshops, Sean works with the University of Sunderland on their English for Academic Purposes programme. He has academic interests in sociolinguistics and its application in the classroom.