Updates from Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital and Hospital Foundation
What was the top word spoken in 2020? You guessed it, “coronavirus” or “COVID” dominated the most used word of the year. In fact, COVID, the shorthand for COVID-19, has the most citations ever recorded in the 21st century.
During the past year we were introduced to many different words. Some were a little familiar to us but we had not used them in the past, and others were completely new. It is a bit remarkable to think how fast new words and phrases can be introduced to a language.
Many terms were previously used in other situations such as essential worker, pandemic, self-isolating, and lock-down. These words increased in use last year, while other phrases are being spoken for the first time. New to some, are terms such as asymptomatic referring to presenting no symptoms of a disease. Epidemiology is very familiar to those in the medical community, but a layman may not know it is a branch of medicine dealing largely with public health.
There have also been coined phrases such as contact tracing referring to the identification and monitoring of people who may have come into contact with an infectious person. The term herd immunity refers to the reduction of risk of infection within a population, often because of exposure or vaccination.
The list goes on and on. This introduction of new words or familiarization of words isn’t that unusual. There is actually a term for it. Neologism is a relatively recent term, word or phrase that may be in the process of becoming commonly used, but has not yet been fully accepted into mainstream language. Neologisms are generally driven by changes in culture, technology, and major events. A word whose development is between protologism (freshly coined) and neologism (new word) is called prelogism.
Examples include laser from Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation and robotics from a play written by Czech writer Karel Capek. Additionally, words have come from historical periods such as the word snafu which was used during World War II. If you are curious, look up what it stands for online as you may be surprised and it’s a little too colorful to include here.
For major health pandemics, the lasting effect on language is generally that the name of the disease become commonplace. For example, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Spanish Flu, SARS and Swine flu.
In April, editors of the Oxford English Dictionary did something unheard of. For the previous 20 years, they issued quarterly updates to announce new words. In late spring, however, and again in July, the dictionary editors released updates citing the importance of documenting the impact of COVID-19 on the English language.
In a mere period of months, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed our way of living. We have seen COVID-19’s impact on health, how we live our lives, the economy, and now how we talk. In short, we don’t know if these neologisms will stay or fade into oblivion. Only time will tell.
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