A wave of words

Hi, it’s Rose! I write for Datawrapper’s blog, and this is my farewell to another pandemic year.

In December two years ago, masks were for costume parties, contacts went in your eye, and a breakthrough was something to celebrate. I had no idea what “social distancing” meant, and no one had yet used the term “COVID-19.”

The coronavirus era has a vocabulary all its own: brand-new coinages, jargon we suddenly all know, and everyday words with new meanings. Over the past two years, these linguistic developments have seemed to echo the course of the pandemic itself. The first weeks of “flattening the curve” gave way to a spring of “anti-mask” and “remote work”; this summer was more about “variant” and “vaccination.”

If it all runs together in your memory, not to worry. We’ve had access to an unprecedented amount of data on almost every aspect of this pandemic, and its linguistic side is no exception. For this Weekly Chart, I consulted the Coronavirus Corpus, which is collection of English-language news articles that deal with COVID-19. As an offshoot of the News on the Web Corpus, which draws from Google News, Bing News, and other web news aggregators, it’s updated every single night and currently runs to over 1.29 billion words. Pair that with daily case numbers from Our World in Data, and you have everything you need to start comparing the real pandemic with the way we’ve talked about it.

“Wave” — as in “a wave of new cases” or “the Delta wave” — is a perfect example of an old word repurposed as pandemic jargon. And as you can see in these charts, our talk of waves has tended to come in waves itself. Use of the word spikes when local cases are high; sometimes, as with India’s summer surge, a wave is so dramatic that it gets the whole world talking. It’s also interesting to see where the two lines diverge, like this fall in the U.K. when a dip in “wave” usage hid persistently high case rates. (I restricted my search to “wave” or “waves” used as nouns, so these results should exclude most waving of flags or hands — though they do include references to “heat waves” and “waves of protest.”)

When I collected this data on December 11, it had been two weeks since the naming of the Omicron variant. Since then, cases have hit an all-time peak in South Africa, Australia, and the U.K. — and that’s just among the countries in these charts. Unfortunately, it looks like our pandemic vocabulary will keep growing for a while yet. Let’s hope for a happier, healthier 2022 — and for a world, like two years ago, where waves belong at the beach.


That’s all from me for this year! Come back next Thursday, when Lisa will have the last word on 2021.

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