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June 1st, 2020
Riteba McCallum

Writing and Translating About COVID-19: What You Need to Know

The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a lot of new words into our daily vocabulary, many of which seem to be interchangeable or murkily defined. Are you sure you’re using them correctly? We’ve decided to clear up the confusion once and for all. Here are the answers to your top coronavirus conundrums.

Q: What’s the difference between “coronavirus” and “COVID-19”? Can I use them interchangeably? Is it redundant to say “the COVID-19 coronavirus”?

A: Coronavirus is a group of viruses that cause a variety of diseases in humans and animals. If you talk about “coronavirus” in the current context, everyone will know which coronavirus you mean, but technically you’re not being very specific. The name of the virus causing the current pandemic is “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2” or SARS-CoV-2. You can see why people would use “coronavirus” for short.

An important fact to note is that viruses often have different names than the disease they cause. For example, HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. The disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, which is short for “coronavirus disease 2019.”

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, WHO has a whole page explaining how it chose these names.

TLDR: For the virus, use “coronavirus” informally or “SARS-CoV-2” to be more accurate. Use “COVID-19” or “coronavirus disease” for the disease.

Q: What’s the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?

A: The Merriam-Webster Dictionary explains that a disease can be declared an “epidemic” when it spreads over a wide area and many individuals are taken ill at the same time. If the spread escalates further, an epidemic can become a “pandemic,” which affects an even wider geographical area and a significant portion of the population becomes affected.

In short, a pandemic is a more severe epidemic. You can use either word to describe COVID-19, but “pandemic” drives home the severity of the crisis and its global reach.

Q: What’s the difference between isolation, quarantine, social distancing and lockdown?

A: According to Merriam-Webster again: “Isolation” refers to separating sick individuals from society in order to contain the spread of the illness. “Quarantine” refers to separating and restricting the movements of healthy individuals who may have been exposed to an illness to determine whether they are sick (and would require “isolation”).

“Self-isolate” refers to the act of putting oneself in isolation or quarantine. If you’ve just come back from travel or are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, you have to self-isolate.

What most of us are currently practicing is “social distancing.” We don’t have symptoms and haven’t been exposed to the disease, but we’re avoiding contact with people so that we don’t contract and spread it.

“Lockdown,” as we’ve seen in several countries around the world now, is when the government imposes emergency restrictions preventing people from leaving their homes except for specific, essential reasons. It’s essentially government-enforced social distancing.

Q: How do you translate that?

A: That’s an easy one! The Translation Bureau of Canada recently released a complete bilingual glossary of coronavirus terminology available here. It includes translations and definitions of everything from caremongering to zoonosis.

Use the right word.

A lot is uncertain and confusing these days, but language doesn’t have to be. Got a terminological question? Get in touch with us today and it will be our pleasure to find the answer.

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