Let’s start by better defining the protagonist of the pandemic:
- Coronavirus: the family of RNA viruses discovered in the 1960s (which differ from “DNA” viruses due to a number of characteristics).
- Covid-19: acronym for COrona VIrus Disease, with the number referring to the year of the first case. This is an infection caused by Sars-Cov-2, defined below.
- Sars-Cov-2: the virus responsible for the current pandemic , whose name derives from “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – Coronavirus – 2”. The ICTV (International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses), a group of scientists whose job is to name viruses, came up with this particular name. As the virus was related to the virus caused by SARS (SARS-CoV), the final “2” was added.
In the beginning, when the epidemic still seemed to be limited to China, the virus was often only referred to as “Coronavirus”. When Europe began to become affected too, especially Italy, the media began to develop their topic-specific language skills and started to use the precise name for this risky infection.
During the first few weeks, it was necessary to understand the difference between:
- virus : microorganisms made up of genetic material (RNA or DNA; Coronaviruses are RNA viruses), enclosed in a protein shell. They are unable to reproduce independently and require carriers in order to spread.
- bacteria : single-celled organisms, larger than viruses and able to self-replicate. Some of these are normally present inside the human body and perform a number of metabolic and defensive functions for the immune system. Pathogenic bacteria, on the other hand, can be aggressive and harmful.
At the start, the following terms were also commonly used:
- patient zero: the first infected patient, who was sought for a long time as part of the Italian epidemiological investigation. It is normally important to identify ‘patient zero’ in order to limit his/her number of contacts and therefore “encircle” the virus, as this helps to predict and minimise infections.
- red zone: in an emergency, this is a high-risk area that needs to be marked off and contained. It is subject to a series of restrictions and prohibitions, for a temporary or continuous period. For example, close to Vesuvius, the “red zone” refers to the municipalities where there is maximum alert in the event of an eruption. Or take Genoa in 2001 for example, when the “red zone” referred to the specially armoured area where the G8 was held, only for the duration of the event.
Reaching the peak of the epidemic in Italy, we have seen rather unusual terminology enter our everyday language and, above all, in the media:
- Draconian: referring to legal provisions, this term brings to mind the harsh and strict Athenian legislator Dracone, who wrote the city’s first code (VII century BC), known as the “founder” of criminal law.
- Plateau: this term has often been used to refer to the expected curve for the peak of the pandemic. In fact, in technical and scientific terms, this word is used to describe any section of a diagram (representative of a size) that runs more or less parallel to the x axis, i.e. appearing almost horizontal or “flat” (from the Old French “platel”, meaning “level”). This indicates that we won’t see a sharp peak, but rather days of ups and downs are expected before numbers start to drop.
- Lockdown: lastly, we find this Anglicism, indicating the security and containment measures for an ongoing emergency (taken from the term usually used in a prison context). More specifically, a more precise definition of the compulsory security measures implemented in Italy during the Covid-19 pandemic would be “social distancing”, which includes all the requirements imposed (quarantine, 1m distance between people, ban on gatherings, etc.).
Finally, much could be said about the term “infodemic”, which the WHO had been worried about since 2 February 2020 and which has unfortunately run rampant. We’ve decided to stick to these ten pandemic words , which we believe to be distinctive and representative, and which we’re sure will be a prelude to other more simple yet significant words, such as hugs, conviviality, respect at all times and life.