Coronavirus: The Evolution of its Many Names

AplusA utilized social media analysis tools to observe the evolution of the use of the different names for coronavirus.

Fig 1: The most shared emojis as of March 19, 2020. Source: Brandwatch

"Ce que l'on conçoit bien s'énonce clairement" wrote the 17th century French writer Boileau, translated as “What you understand well, you enunciate clearly.”

Talking with uncertainty increases levels of uncertainty, as has been the case with the confusion concerning the name of the disease at the heart of the current worldwide pandemic.

So what is it called?

Corona Virus? Coronavirus? In two words? In one word? 2019-nCoV? Covid-19? SARS-COV-2? Why does the name keep changing as though mirroring its physical mutation?

An initial lack of control and consistency regarding the name of the disease led to many variations being used, and only a few will stand the test of time. We utilized our social media analysis tools to observe the evolution of the use of the different names for what has come to be referred to most widely as COVID19.

Let's start at the beginning

2019-nCoV was the first official name. 2019 for the year of appearance, n for new and CoV as a shortcut for coronavirus but, likely due to complexity, the name didn’t catch on in everyday language. The media and the public began to use names such as ‘Wuhan coronavirus’ or ‘Chinese coronavirus’, contributing to the stigmatization of the Chinese region and population. 

The name Covid-19 was officially introduced by the World Health Organization on Twitter on February 11, 2020. It combines the abbreviations ‘co’ from ‘corona’ (‘crown’ in latin), ‘vi’ from ‘virus’ (‘poison’ in latin), ’d’ for ‘disease’, and ‘19’ for the year. The multilingual hybrid word was chosen due to it being pronounceable in most languages and more importantly as it does not stigmatize any population, geographical location or animal group.

Furthermore, WHO specifically did not want to use a name relating to SARS. “From a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003,” a WHO spokesperson explained to Sciencemag. “For that reason and others, in public communications WHO will refer to 'the virus responsible for COVID-19' or 'the COVID-19 virus’.

So how has this name been used since February 11?

The trend analysis cloud below shows that coronavirus is starting to disappear from the discussion, shown fading in gray, in favor of the increasingly used Covid19 - shown trending in red. Other variations including the version with a hyphen and the version with an underscore are being used less in favour of the version with no space.

  Fig 2: The most shared words for the virus as of March 19, 2020. Source: Brandwatch

Many people still don’t realize that covid-19 is not the name of the virus itself, but rather refers to the pandemic. The virus is called SARS-CoV-2, broken down as CoV for ‘coronavirus’, SARS for ‘Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome’, and "-2" to signify that it belongs to the same family as the SARS-CoV responsible for the SARS epidemic between 2002 and 2003.

It remains the case that COVID-19 is still referred to by many names. The Santé Publique site in France, for example, refers to it as "new Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), COVID-19".

Which name have you been using?

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