Language change is a lengthy process, with words often taking years or even decades to enter the dictionary. But just as the coronavirus has taught us how rapidly change can occur — shutting down the economy, halting the effects of climate change — we’ve learned that even language can adapt with surprising rapidity.
Let’s play a little catch-up.
Zoom, verb: to video-chat via a web application with college roommates, childhood friends, your sister’s ex-boyfriend’s yoga teacher’s cat. Most Americans have gone from never having heard of Zoom to verbing it regularly. Keep it capitalized, but come back to me if we’re still social distancing six months from now. We’ll see if it’s reached google status by then.
self-isolation, noun: recommended state if you’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms. Between the coughing, fever, and shortness of breath, try to ignore the fact that the term self-isolation is redundant. For now, we’ll give you a pass on the poor usage, but as soon as your symptoms disappear, so does our indulgence of your bad grammar. When your friends ask where you were, you were just isolating, got it?
pandemic, noun: The pan- already tells you that it’s worldwide, so please stop staying “global pandemic”—it’s also redundant. Don’t make this worse than it already is. (See self-isolation, above.)
WFH, abbreviation: This shortening of work from home got normalized shockingly quickly.
PPE, abbreviation: Even more shocking than how quickly this shortening of personal protective equipment got normalized? How many health-care workers are still lacking sufficient PPE.
coronavirus, noun: According to the World Health Organization, coronavirus is the virus that causes COVID-19, just like HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. Follow the health experts on this one. But don’t capitalize coronavirus, just as you wouldn’t capitalize influenza or diabetes.
covid-19, noun: Follow the copy editors on this one. It’s the disease that’s killed more than 200,000 people, but because it’s a weird acronym of COronaVIrus Disease-2019, we still don’t have a uniform way to capitalize it. The Inquirer and the Associated Press give it the all-caps COVID-19 treatment — really in-your-face to let you know what a big, bad disease it is. The New York Times opts for the subtler Covid-19, while the Washington Post is most understated in its all-lowercase covid-19. (At least everyone agrees on the hyphen.) With all due respect to the heroes on The Inquirer’s copy desk, go with the Post’s advice: covid-19. The all-caps are — just as Donald Trump called the whole pandemic in January — alarmist. The Times’ capitalization of only the first letter is asinine, since it’s not named for a person (like, say, Alzheimer’s disease). When all of this passes — and it will — covid-19 will be a memory no more deserving of capitalization than radar (an oft-forgotten acronym for “RAdio Detection And Ranging”) or humvee (a bastardized acronym for “high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle,” which makes about as much sense as the nuts who drive these gas-guzzling freak shows down Lancaster Avenue on the Main Line). Minimizing the caps lowers readers’ blood pressure — something sure to help our collective mental and physical health when we all need it most.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions and initialisms to firstname.lastname@example.org.