A Word, Please: Breaking down the coronavirus pandemic grammatically

Two health workers advance to a vehicle with people inside who wanted to be tested for the coronavirus at a drive-through testing station installed by All For Health, Health For All on the corner of Isabel Street and Broadway in Glendale on Tuesday.
Two health workers advance to a vehicle with people inside who wanted to be tested for the coronavirus at a drive-through testing station installed by All For Health, Health For All on the corner of Isabel Street and Broadway in Glendale on Tuesday.
(Tim Berger/Glendale News Press)

The language of pandemics is on all our lips these days. Tragically. Here are some of the terms pertaining to the pandemic that are worth getting right.


Though sometimes used to mean the disease that has afflicted more than a million people across the globe, that’s not quite right. Nor is it the name of the virus infecting people.

Instead, coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect humans and animals. The most common human coronavirus causes 15% to 30% of cases of the common cold, according to a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

SARS-CoV, another coronavirus, was responsible for the 2003 SARS outbreak that killed 774 people worldwide.


The virus causing our current pandemic is called SARS-CoV-2. Despite the 2 in the name, it’s the seventh coronavirus known to infect humans. The “SARS” part of the name is an acronym for severe acute respiratory syndrome, just as it was in the 2003 outbreak.


The illness caused by SARS-CoV-2, which can bring respiratory and other symptoms ranging from mild to fatal. The CO part of the name is taken from “corona,” the VI part comes from “virus” and the D is for “disease.”

The 19 refers to the year in which it was named. There’s no consensus on how to capitalize the name. But if you want to follow someone’s lead, note that the Associated Press style experts have come down on the side of all capital letters.


Unlike bacteria, which are living cellular organisms, a virus is essentially a cluster of genetic material, DNA or RNA, that’s wrapped in a fatty protein envelope and that can replicate only inside the cell of another living organism.


A virus particle outside a living cell, though I’ve also seen the term used to refer specifically to the RNA or DNA innards without the fat/protein “envelope.”


The fat/protein “envelope” around the genetic material of a virus holds it together and helps it infect hosts. Because it’s high in lipids — fats — it’s easily obliterated by plain old soap. That’s why hand washing with soap and water is so effective at helping prevent the spread of viral infections, including coronaviruses.


Not long ago, you heard the word “epidemic” more than “pandemic.” COVID-19 has changed that. What we’re experiencing is a pandemic. I’ll let Merriam-Webster explain the difference. “A disease can be declared an epidemic when it spreads over a wide area and many individuals are taken ill at the same time,” the dictionary makers write.

“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,” Merriam-Webster added.

In other words, a pandemic is bigger. A global pandemic, then, is bigger still.

Social distancing, physical distancing

Please know at least one of these. They both mean you should stay away from people who aren’t members of your immediate household. The virus that causes COVID-19 is highly contagious and can be spread by people not showing any symptoms of illness.

That’s why experts are telling us to keep at least 6 feet away from people we don’t live with. The most common term for this is social distancing. Some experts say that’s not ideal and that “physical distancing” would be better because even as we keep physically separated we should stay socially connected.

Isolation has its dangers and consequences. In the age of Skype, Zoom, Facetime, Twitter and other connecting technologies, physical separation doesn’t have to mean isolation.

Herd immunity

The idea here is that, because infectious pathogens pass from person-to-person, they die out when there’s no one to pass them to.

This is a goal of vaccinations. If you can’t get the flu because you’ve been vaccinated, you can’t pass it on to someone else. Theoretically, if enough of that happens, the virus dies out in that particular population.

The idea is a little more dangerous when dealing with SARS-CoV-2 because, in the absence of a vaccine, the only way people might become immune is by getting sick and recovering.

And because a significant percentage of the people who get sick require hospitalization and many die, herd immunity to SARS-CoV-2 would require massive suffering and death.

That’s why experts are pushing so hard for social distancing: Because the best way to not spread COVID-19 is to not get it in the first place.

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