Covid-19 – from a medical translator’s perspective

Oct 19, 2021

No event in recent history has had such a profound impact on medicine as the current global pandemic – nor has any disease coined so many new words or expressions (neologisms) in every language. A comparison between the way that German and English terms have evolved, must undoubtedly begin with the very name of the virus. Typically, German uses the official name Sars- CoV-2, whereas simply “coronavirus” is considered sufficient in English. The disease caused by the virus is known as Covid-19 as an acronym of COronaVIrusDisease. However, the WHO considers that for ease of communication, “Covid-19” can refer to both the virus and the disease.

Confusingly, in English the disease is sometimes fully capitalised as COVID-19, or just referred to as “COVID”, or merely partly capitalised as “Covid” with or without adding “-19”! In Germany, the disease is referred to as “Corona” and the pandemic as “Coronakrise”, “Corona-Pandemie” or “Coronazeit”, the equivalent term in the UK is just “Covid” or “the pandemic”. One problem here is that “Corona” is also the brand name for a pale lager sold in the UK!

The pandemic has spawned numerous acronyms such as the UK’s “WFH” (Working From Home), or the snappy German “AHA” (Abstand halten + Hände waschen +Alltagsmaske tragen), which is roughly equivalent to the UK slogan “Hands, Face, Space”. The English “PPE” (German equivalent PSA -= persönliche Schutzausrüstung) is now better understood as “Personal Protective Equipment”, than the former “Politics, Philosophy and Economics” degree awarded by universities such as Oxford and held by many members of the British political establishment! “3G” in Germany has nothing to do with mobile phone coverage, but stands for “geimpft, genesen, getestet” (vaccinated, recovered or tested). “TTIQ” (Test, Trace, Isolate, Quarantine) or “TRIQ” (Testen, Rückverfolgung, Isolation, und Quarantäne) are other examples.

Denglish has generated such monsters as “geschutdownte” – as in “Die Geshutdownte Coronazeit”, “lockgedownt” or even “gedownlockt” and transformed “home office” and “home schooling” into the compound words “Homeoffice” and “Homeschooling”. This caused some confusion in the UK because the Home Office in the UK is actually a government department along the lines of the Ministry of the Interior! “Cor(o)nern” is explained as “Street style zwischen Späti-Pils und Cocktail to go”. “Quarantini” is another alcohol-based term (the experimental lockdown cocktails made from whatever you could find at back of the drinks cupboard!), as is “Coronita” (coronavirus margarita). Sadly, the German “Zaunbier” (a beer shared over the garden fence with a neighbour so as not to infringe social distancing rules) has no English equivalent.

Some terms have developed new connotations, such as “social distance” (“soziale Distanz”) or “social distancing”, which in the 1950’s was a term said by the sociologist Karl Mannheim to be a way used by the higher ranks of a society to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, rather than the required or recommended physical separation of customers in a supermarket (Mindestabstand)! “Self-isolation” was first used in the nineteenth century to describe isolationist-minded nations, but now refers to a period of self-imposed isolation to try and stop the spread of infections. “Shelter-inplace” harks back to the Cold War, when a nuclear attack was considered imminent, but was used especially in the US in the early stages of the pandemic until replaced by the more understandable “Stay-at-Home”. “Firebreak” – previously a line of felled trees in a forest to slow down the spread of fire – is now a burst of tough restrictions to try and break the chain of transmission. A “circuit breaker” is a synonym for “firebreak” and has also lost its original electrical connotations. The word “trikini” – originally a three-piece swimsuit – has become a bikini with a matching facemask! The German “Abflachen” no longer means to describe the lack of meaningful content or something that is superficial, but is used in the context of “flattening the curve” of coronavirus cases. Similarly, “Dauerwelle” is not something obtained in a hairdressing salon (a “perm” in English), but rather the Click here to buy ABBYY PDF Transformer 3.0 Click here to buy ABBYY PDF Transformer 3.0 seemingly never-ending wave of infections. “Notfallbremse” – emergency brake – nowadays has nothing to do with stopping a vehicle, but an attempt to stop a rise in infections. In the Covid-19 era, “Bubbles” no longer relates to relaxing baths or champagne but is used in the UK to refer to the cluster of people (whose number varies, depending on the prevailing government regulations or guidance) outside someone’s household with whom they can spend time or support during the pandemic -roughly equivalent to the German “Haushalte-Regel”. With fewer UK residents living in flats, “Balkonchor” or “Fensterkonzert” never became the practice in England; instead on Thursday evenings during the first lockdown, people were urged to come outside their front doors and applaud the NHS. “Claphazard” was the risk if you came too close to your neighbours during this display of gratitude! “Key workers” (Schlüsselkraft/leitender Mitarbeiter) has nothing to do with locksmiths, but instead denotes workers in “essential” occupations such as NHS and social care, public services, safety and security, education, transport, food industry etc. ”. Few UK residents had ever heard of the word “Furlough” (temporary leave of absence, especially granted to a member of the armed services or a missionary) (Verlaub) until the government introduced a scheme to pay workers up to 80% of their usual wages if their job was suspended due to Covid. This was the origin of the phrase “Furlough Merlot” – a good deal snappier than “Coronaerwerbsersatzentschadigung” or even “Kurzarbeitsentschadigung”. “Zoom” used to refer to either the buzzing sound of an insect, or the movement of a camera to magnify a shot. No longer – it’s the most famous video meeting platform we have all had to learn to use.

In both languages, a host of brand new words have appeared. English examples include “Foggles” – a new term to describe spectacles fogged up by the wearing of a face mask, “Elbow bump” (Ellenbogengruss) – a hands-free greeting and “Coronacoaster” – the mood swings experienced by many over the past 18 months akin to a fairground rollercoaster. Then there is “Locktail hour” (a combination of lockdown and cocktail) and “Doughverkill” – to describe the surfeit of pictures on social media of home-baked sourdough that became a craze in the UK. A “Nightingale Hospital” (Behelfskrankenhaus) named after an English nurse, Florence Nightingale, famous in the UK for her work during the Crimean War, was an emergency, temporary hospital set up to deal with a forecast surge in Covid patients that was expected to overwhelm existing medical. New German words include “Coronawampe” – loosely translated as Covid belly or paunch to describe the mysterious weight gain in many people during the pandemic (“fattening the curve”). “Bierfenster” – “beer to go”. “Balkonien” – holidays on your own balcony, “Offnungsdiskussiosnorgien” – endless debates about when to lift lockdown, “Beherbergungsverbot”– government restriction to hotels, hostels, etc to accommodate guests. “Kurzarbiet” – reducing working hours to prevent staff from being laid off. The selfish and unthinking behaviour of rule-breakers produced the English word “Covidiot” or “Covidiote” in German.

New German words include “Coronwampe”, loosely translated as Covid belly or paunch to describe the mysterious weight gain in many people during the pandemic (“fattening the curve”). “Bierfenster” (beer to go), “Balkonien” (holidays on your own balcony), “Öffnungsdiskussionorgien” (endless debates about when to lift lockdown), “Beherbergungsverbot” (government restriction on accommodating guests in hotels or hostels) and “Kurzarbeit” (reducing working hours to prevent staff from being laid off). The selfish and unthinking behaviour of rule-breakers produced the English word “covidiots” or “Covidiote” in German.

Whether we have reached the peak of infections (and new terminology about Covid-19!) remains to be seen, but the following untranslatable English joke probably sums it up:

The spread of Covid-19 is based on 2 things:

a) How dense the population is.
b) How dense the population is.


Acknowledgements: Large parts of this article are based on a webinar “COVID-19, Neologisms, Mutations, “Untranslatable” given to the Institute of Translating and Interpreting by Kate Sotejeff-Wilson and Ulrike Nichols, to whom I express my sincere gratitude and admiration.

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