I think we have almost certainly just witnessed the fastest ever global adoption of a new word. And, maybe, the fastest diffusion of two words in the history of humanity.
Perhaps the only thing to spread faster than the “coronavirus” is its new name, COVID-19.
Words spread a lot like diseases — most of them never make it into the general lexicon. Few make it out of a group of people, much less achieve even colloquial or dialect status. Only a precious few make it into multilingual use.
The word coronavirus spread amazingly fast, once the disease exploded onto the scene. Technically, the word coronavirus has been around since the 1960s when it was discovered. Usage, however, was largely limited to a small group of epidemiological enthusiasts.
In linguistics, COVID-19, is a hyphenated, blended word that combines parts of multiple words. In this case, CoronaVIrus December 19 (as in December 2019).
Media monitoring databases demonstrate just how fast the words “COVID-19” and “coronavirus” burst into our collective psyche following that fateful day of December 10, 2019 when Wei Guixian, a seafood merchant in Wuhan’s Hua’nan market, first acknowledged feeling sick.
There was only a small trickle of the term “coronavirus” in use between December 10th and January 20, 2020 when widespread reporting began.
Then three weeks later, on February 11, 2020, word COVID-19, erupted when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it as the more specific name of the disease. That day COVID-19 was cited in approximately 50,000 articles that use the Roman alphabet character.
As a side note, the formal name of the disease is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”, or SARS-CoV-2. However, The WHO uses COVID-19 to avoid confusion with the 2003 outbreak of SARS.
Interestingly, the WHO’s preferred term, COVID-19, has yet to achieve the same rate of adoption as coronavirus in published media.
While there has been a significant delta in the volume of media mentions of the two terms, the social media amplification of articles mentioning either phrase was very close for a while (right after the introduction of COVID-19). However, coronavirus seems to have remained the more popular term over time.
“Once the public knows something by one name, it’s difficult to change it to another name,” said Matt Cabot, associate professor of public relations at San Jose State University. “It’s an example of why ‘first-mover advantage’ is so powerful when defining a category or an issue.”
Let us all hope that our need to use the term drops with the same rapidity as it has risen.
Note: The above charts show media mentions of the words COVID-19 and coronavirus written only in characters using the Roman alphabet in publications globally. If the search had been run using every major character set, the media counts would be even higher.