coronavirus and COVID-19

A retired colleague contacted me with this query:
Has a dialect difference emerged between US novel coronavirus/new coronavirus and UK COVID-19, do you think? Novel coronavirus/new coronavirus is favoured by Reuters, but I don't know whether that counts in the dialect balance.

I hear plenty of COVID-19 from US sources, so that didn't strike me as quite right, but I had a look (on 29 April) at the News on the Web (NOW) corpus, which (so far this year) had 226 covi* (i.e. words starting with covi-) per million words in US and 49 per million in UK. For coronav* it's 362 US v 92 UK. (I searched that way so that I'd get all variations, including COVID without the -19, without the hyphen, coronaviruses, etc.).

Now, I don't trust the geographical coding on the NOW corpus very much, because you have things like the Guardian showing up in the US data because it has a US portal that has US-particular content, but also all the UK content—and that doesn't do us much good in sorting out AmE from BrE. I really don't know why the per-million numbers are so much higher in the US sources, since the news in both places is completely taken over by the virus and stories related to it. But anyway, about 38% of the (named) mentions of the disease are COVID in the US and 35% in the UK, so there is no notable difference in preference for COVID. I found it interesting that the two newspaper apps on my phone (Guardian [UK] and New York Times) prefer coronavirus in headlines, even though COVID-19 is shorter.

But my colleague is right that there is a lot more new/novel coronavirus in US than UK. About 12% of AmE usages are prefaced by an adjective that starts with N, while only about 3% of BrE coronaviruses are. Distribution is fairly even between novel (from medical usage) and new. It's worth noting that since I'm only searching news media,  new/novel is probably far more common in this dataset than it would be in everyday interactions.

Including the definite article (the coronavirus) seems to be more common in AmE. If I just look for how many coronavirus occurrences are preceded by the, the proportion is 45% for AmE and 37% for BrE.  this search hits examples like the one in the 'middle school' story on the left: the coronavirus lockdown where the the really relates to the lockdown. So, to try to avoid this problem, I searched for (the) coronavirus [VERB] and (the) coronavirus [full stop/period]. In those cases, then AmE news media have the the about 50% of the time, while BrE ones have it less than 30% of the time. That misses the new/novel coronavirus (because of the adjective between the and coronavirus), so the real difference in the before coronavirus is probably more stark.

The media's style guides are supposed to guide the choices journalists and editors make in phrasing such things, but how strictly they follow their own guides is another matter. I had a look at a couple:

The Guardian Style Guide (UK) says:
coronavirus outbreak 2019-20
The virus is officially called Sars-CoV-2 and this causes the disease Covid-19. However, for ease of communication we are following the same practice as the WHO and using Covid-19 to refer to both the virus and the disease in our general reporting. It can also continue to be referred to as the coronavirus.  [I've added the bold on the latter]

The Associated Press (US) gives similar advice, though it goes into more particular rules for science stories.
As of March 2020, referring to simply the coronavirus is acceptable on first reference in stories about COVID-19. While the phrasing incorrectly implies there is only one coronavirus, it is clear in this context. Also acceptable on first reference: the new coronavirus; the new virus; COVID-19.
In stories, do not refer simply to coronavirus without the article the. Not: She is concerned about coronavirus. Omitting the is acceptable in headlines and in uses such as: He said coronavirus concerns are increasing.
Passages and stories focusing on the science of the disease require sharper distinctions.
COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. When referring specifically to the virus, the COVID-19 virus and the virus that causes COVID-19 are acceptable. But, because COVID-19 is the name of the disease, not the virus, it is not accurate to write a new virus called COVID-19. [bold added]
In comparing the two passages you can see one predictable difference between them. AP writes COVID in all caps, Guardian has Covid with the initial capital only. There is a widespread preference in BrE (and generally not in AmE) to differentiate between initalisms and true acronyms. (There's been a bit in the Guardian about it, here.)

In an initialism, you pronounce the names of the letters: the WHO stands for World Health Organization and it is pronounced W-H-O and not "who". It's spel{led/t} with all caps (or small caps), no matter where you live. (AmE styles are more likely than BrE styles to insist on (BrE) full stops/(AmE) periods in these: W.H.O.—but styles do vary.)

Acronyms use the initial letters of words to make a new word, pronounced as a word. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's short name is pronounced "nasa", making it a true acronym. All AmE styles that I know of spell it with caps: NASA. Many BrE styles spell it like any other proper name, with just an initial capital: Nasa.

This disease name provides a slightly different case because it's doesn't just use initial letters: COronaVIrusDisease. That's probably why I'm seeing some initial-only Covid in AmE, for instance in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where they spell other acronyms (like NASA) in all caps.

Other variants, like CoViD and covid are out there—but they are in the minority. COVID and Covid rule.While some other UK sources, like the Guardian, follow the initial-cap style (Covid), many UK sources use the all-cap style, including the National Health Service and the UK government.


And on that note, I hope you and yours are safe.

P.S. Since I'm talking about newspaper uses, I haven't considered pronunciation—but that discussion is happening in the comments. 

31 comments

  1. Thanks for this Lynne. I've been translating non-stop about coronavirus from Finnish to English for a month and a half now. (Finnish doesn't have articles.) In the beginning I'd write "the coronavirus", but then it began to feel a bit clunky and a couple of colleagues, one of whom I think was my American translation reviewer, said they thought the article was unncessary. So I dropped it. I feel like we've been making it up as we go along! The rare tiems I've had to use COVID-19, I've opted for all caps.

    What agglutinative languages like Finnish are doing a lot is taking the "corona-" bit and making that shorthand for "coronavirus" – and it really has been hard at work! Finnish must by now have a million new words beginning with korona-, because you can put it in front of anything. It also means Finnish speakers use "korona" as shorthand for "koronavirus", which sounds a bit flippant, but understandable. (English has been doing it too: https://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2020/03/words-of-the-week-coronacoinages.html)

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  2. To clarify: Finnish uses both the "korona-" prefix as shorthand for a coronavirus modifier and the noun "korona" as shorthand for "koronavirus".

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  3. I have heard the O in COVID-19 pronounced with the vowel of LOT or of GOAT; is the latter perhaps more common in the US, as with some other acronyms and loanwords (Aeroflot, ayatollah, Interpol, pogrom, riposte, yogurt)?

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    1. Someone reacting on my Facebook page has said it's LOT in BrE, GOAT in AmE news. Since I don't tend to listen to news (I read it) and because I don't tend to listen for pronunciations, I don't know how regular this is. In my household, the BrE speakers use the GOAT vowel, but they live with me...

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    2. (A caution to readers: these vowels are very different in different accents. So, if you're imagining what it would sound like with the vowel in LOT in your accent, that is probably not the vowel that would be used for LOT in another accent.)

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    3. It never occurred to me not to pronounce it with a long O, but then, it's not actually a word I say out loud much. The doctor told me I'd probably had "Coronavirus", not Covid-19.

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    4. I think I can say with some certainty that in the USA "COVID" is almost universally pronounced with the long O and not the short.

      Mrs. Redboots: I was a little startled to hear that your doctor told you you'd "probably" had the virus. Was that the result of your reporting symptoms (e.g., fever, dry cough) consistent with someone who'd contracted the virus, or did you actually have an antibody test that revealed you have antibodies to the virus?

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    5. Reported symptoms - the doctor was ringing me every 3-4 days at one stage! All over now, thankfully, only residual fatigue.

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    6. I've been in hospital for a week and I've only heard the "goat" pronunciation.

      I don't take much notice of the BBC. They can't even get local placenames right!

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  4. In Italian, acronyms usually have a capital letter only for the first word (Bbc, for instance, or Usa, both of which after 40 years here I still find odd; even odder, the Italian equivalent is spelt RAI and pronounced as a word, more or less rye). The Italian government and regional admin call it COVID-19; the press, on the whole, uses Covid-19.

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  5. oops... the RAI is the Italian BBC.

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  6. I find it annoying that people are calling Covid19 THE coronavirus...when the virus..A coronavirus ....is SARS COV 2...and Covid 19 the disease, an immune system overreaction.
    After all the common cold is also a coronavirus.

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  7. RAH: I was trying to figure out how RAI could be an acronym for Italy! Repubblica Antica Italiana was what came to mind, but that sounds more like the Roman Republic. What would be a more likely A-word here? :-)

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    1. RAdiotelevisione Italiana. They prefer to read acronyms as words in Italian (so BBC is a pain). The USA is pronounced, approximately, ooza.

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    2. They could always call it the Beeb. :-)

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  8. I think this cartoon came out sometime in February:

    https://xkcd.com/2275/

    Unfortunately I don't know how to find out exactly when. It was before Covid-19 (or COVID-19) had got about much in the press. Also unfortunate that all the speech is in caps anyway so you don't know whether they're saying Covid or COVID. I prefer CoViD myself, pronounced with the GOAT vowel, but I was only noticing earlier that Rupala Shah on BBC R4's 10 O'clock News used the LOT vowel.

    Guardian Style Guide on Abbreviationas and Acronyms here:

    https://www.theguardian.com/guardian-observer-style-guide-a#abbreviations%20and%20acronyms

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    1. According to the explainxkcd website (a useful site to know), it came out 2nd March:

      https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/2275:_Coronavirus_Name

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    2. As a pedantic aside, the Radio4 presenter is Ritula Shah https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/5TJpWsSCS243w9QhCxWbnV6/ritula-shah

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  9. BTW: thought I'd add a link to the Chicago Manual of Style's approach to the whole "COVID-19" versus "Covid-19" issue.

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  10. As we are talking about the the virus, the disease and such matters, does any other BrE reader share my ear-twitch over our government's slogan, 'stay home, save lives and protect .. ' While I accept that it needs to be short and snappy, 'stay home' sounds like an American idiom to me. I don't have the resources to check the corpora (which are likely to be skewed by recent events) but 'stay home' just doesn't sound like BrE to me.

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    1. That is the coming weekend's blog topic, so I'd love it if people could save the chat about that one for that blog post. That way, readers looking for info on that question will find your comments.

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    2. And what about "furlough" which I see you did as an untranslatable back in 2013, but is now turning up daily in the UK press. Before this year I think I've only ever come across it in US books, and then primarily in a military context.

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    3. You can't help suspecting it's the US military that really decides UK policies, can you? Happy VE day everyone!

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  11. Paul Dormer, many thanks for that.

    Andy J, thanks to you too. Tbh, I've only recently got past thinking her name (only ever heard) was Rita La Shah!

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    1. Hmm. How come I click 'Reply' but my reply comes out as an unconnected new comment? Is it because I sign in during the process (i.e. I select comment with Google account, then press Publish, get sent to the Google log-in screen and returned to the comment box, whereupon I have to press Publish again -- unless I'm on my smartphone, when my comment disappears, but I get left signed in to Google)

      I was of course replying to the replies to my earlier comment.

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  12. That's interesting. I hadn't even realised that Covid was originally a sort of acronym. I thought it was just a new word for something new. I've also never thought about there being a difference between whether you put a word like Nasa that is pronounced as spelt in capital words if the letters are an acronym. I'm pretty sure that in preference when some initials have come to be pronounced as a word rather than a series of letters, I'd put all but the first in lower case. As a sort of counter-example, OK remains in capitals as Ok would be pronounced like the Scottish exclamation but with a hard 'k'.

    So I agree with the Guardian.

    'Furlough' is a completely new usage in BrEnglish, instantly coined for this occasion. It has a specific meaning of being temporarily laid off but still getting some of your pay, either from your employer or from somebody else, in this case the government. In US English, I think it means 'leave' as in the military sense, which isn't the same and in BrEnglish is 'leave'.

    In its new BrEnglish usage, furlough is also a transitive verb, which forms regular participles etc.

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    1. As I said in my earlier post, Lynne did mention furlough as an untranslatable back in 2013 and in this sense, temporary unpaid leave. Unfortunately the discussion of the term she linked to no longer exists.

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  13. I (British) was familiar with the term as an old word for military leave. Cambridge Dictionaries gives a lot of examples from Hansard (date undiscoverable, I would guess WWI era).

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  14. On the BBC news I hear "coronavirus" more than "Covid-19", and both indiscriminately for the virus and the disease. When people say Covid-19, it's with a long o as in GOAT -- I don't recall anyone using a short o as in LOT.

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    1. I hear the long "o" far more than the short, but oddly, the presenter on Broadcasting House (programme on Radio 4 on Sunday mornings) used a short "o", although none of his guests did.

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  15. A new development. In the last week or so, I've begun to encounter references simply to C19.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)