The reason why we shorten words
George Kingsley Zipf, an American linguist who worked in the first half of the 20th century at Harvard, showed that frequent words tend to be shorter than less frequent ones. Compare luck with serendipity, or huge with enormous. The reason is that language users follow the principle of least effort. This is why the short word car substituted the long word automobile, and mobile or simply phone are more common in informal conversations than the full phrase mobile phone. There is evidence that all human languages behave in this way.
In the times of the pandemic, it is not surprising that people start using shortcuts like corona instead of coronavirus in daily communication. A recent study of the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the use of the clipped form corona has soared over the recent months. The meaning is often extended from the coronavirus itself to the disease, pandemic and the social crisis it has caused.
The speakers of Australian English are probably the champions in least effort. They have come up with an even more radically shortened form, rona. One would say, I’m in iso [self-isolation] because of rona.
How different languages deal with the challenge
The clipped form corona is common in many languages, such as Bengali, Hebrew, Indonesian, Malayalam and Romanian. In Dutch, as well as in German, Danish and Swedish, corona has become very popular, as well. It is particularly frequent in compounds – words that consist of two or more independent words. The Dutch, for example, speak about coronapatiënten ‘corona-patients’, coronadoden ‘corona-deaths’ and coronatests. They must adhere to coronaregels ‘corona-rules’ and deal with the coronacrisis. In short, we are living in the coronatijd ‘corona-time’.
The clipping corona is less successful in those languages where the word corona already has another popular meaning, like ‘a crown’, for example, in Italian, Polish and Russian. This linguistic coincidence is a source of jokes. One of them makes fun of Prince Charles, who has tested positive for coronavirus: Una vita ad aspettare una corona e si prende quella sbagliata “Waiting for a crown all your life, only to take the wrong one.” Or a -joke popular among Spanish anti-monarchists: Ojalá salgamos de esta sin virus y sin Corona “I hope we get out of this without the virus and without the Crown”. In addition, one should not underestimate the role of the beer brand Corona, which may prevent some beer fans from using corona for ‘coronavirus’. Under these circumstances, some people prefer using covid, from COVID-19, although it is often perceived as more formal and technical.
A real success story can be found in Chinese. Here, the full name for the coronavirus is xin-xing guan-zhuang bingdu, which means ‘new-type crown-shape virus’. Definitely not the most convenient name for everyday use. Professor Danquing Liu, Director of the Institute of Linguistics of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, actually predicted in the beginning of the pandemic that the form xin-guan ‘novel crown’ would become the most popular one because it is short and the most informative (article published in the section Jinri Yuyanxue “Linguistics Today” of WeChat, the most popular Chinese social media app). This prediction has been confirmed. Xinguan has been officially recognized by the public health authorities, and is now used everywhere.
Humour against the virus
Of course, the principle of least effort does not explain everything in language. Our attempts to save effort are balanced by our love for expressivity and fun. It is not surprising that the pandemic has brought to life many humorous names for the virus. For example, some speakers of Brazilian Portuguese call it coronga vírus (coronga is a species of fish). A more cynical expression boomer remover is used by young Americans. It reflects the fact that the post-war generation of baby boomers is particularly affected by the virus. Twitter users even address it as a human being: “Miss Rona, please go away!”
Time will tell which innovations will survive the pandemic. Still, imaginative words and puns help us cope with the crisis, even when they don’t live long. So, keep it short and simple, but don’t forget to be creative!
The information presented here originates from a discussion on the Lingtyp mailing list. The author is very grateful to all contributors.
– Bentz, C., & Ferrer Cancho, R. (2016). Zipf’s law of abbreviation as a language universal. In Proceedings of the Leiden workshop on capturing phylogenetic algorithms for linguistics (pp. 1-4). University of Tübingen. Link
– Den Boon, T. (2020). Coronawoordenboek. Taalbank. Geraadpleegd via: Link
– Oxford English Dictionary (2020). Corpus analysis of the language of Covid-19. Link
Writer: Natalia Levshina
Editor: Francie Mandhardt, Greta Kaufeld
Dutch translation: Lynn Eekhof
German translation: Barbara Molz, Björn Wiemer
Final editing: Merel Wolf