From social distancing to terms like 'covidiot,' it's no secret language has taken a turn since COVID-19 was first introduced.

The changes seen around the world to language as a result, however, have been dramatic.

Elfrieda Lepp-Kaethler is an associate professor of TESOL at Providence University College and teaches classes in sociolingistics, which examines the role of language in society, and psycholinguistics, look at the mental aspects of language and speech.

Lepp-Kaethler says she has only just recently began to consider how broadly language has been impacted by COVID-19 and cites Dr. Robert Lawson from Birmingham City University calling the change "unprecedented.

"That's a fascinating change," Lepp-Kaethler says. "Lexographers and socioliguists are having a hayday."

New virus, new words

Lepp-Kaethler says the term COVID-19 was only coined in February 2020 when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the virus' official name. It consists of the shortening of "Coronavirus Disease 2019."

The word coronavirus, however, is not a new word. It was used previously in the 1960's for an earlier strain of the virus.

"Language is changing all the time," Lepp-Kaethler says. The rise of the term COVID-19, however, was particularly rapid and exponential in the English language.

"It's not a new phenomenon but the speed at which this language change has been happening in the last six months in English and in other languages as well has been unprecedented."

Lepp-Kaethler says COVID-19 also hit at a time where the world is more connected than ever, as evidenced by the virus' spread and it's pandemic label.

"In December 2019, the word coronavirus appeared only 0.03 times per million tokens," Lepp-Kaethler says. "Whereas in April 2020, the figures for COVID-19 and the word coronavirus had skyrocketed to about 1,750 times per million tokens."

Tokens are a linguistic term referring to the smallest units of language collected in track.

"Both of these terms seem to be used at roughly the same frequency," Lepp-Kaethler adds.

Surprisingly, COVID-19 is the only truly new word of the pandemic. "Many of the other terms are older words that have a new meaning now or a new nuance," Lepp-Kaethler explains.

The term self-isolation was first reported in 1834 and self-isolating in 1841. Both used to have a slightly different meaning, referring to countries who chose to detatch themselves politically and economically from the rest of the world.

Now, the term speaks to the self-imposed quarantine some people endure for a period of up to 14 days while they wait to see if they are exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus.

Another old word with new meaning: infodemic, a blend of the words "information" and "epidemic." The word refers to the unsubstantiated amount of online information pertaining to a crisis.

"This was actually coined in 2003 for the SARS epidemic but it's also being used now surrounding coronvirus ... some of the misinformation [from the news]."

The elbow bump first came up in 1981, much like a high-five, to celebrate, for example, with a teammate.

"Now, of course, the elbow bump is a way to avoid hand touching when greeting."

The term social distancing first referred to someone who displayed aloofness or intentionally tried to distance oneself socially from others. Now, Lepp-Kaethler notes, we use the term physical distancing more frequently.

Social distancing as a result of COVID-19 has driven people more towards social media and the news, bringing people together virtually out of a need for contact.

"University professors all over the world, [for example], have been thrown into this situation where they are suddenly having to do everything online ... some of that was happening before and now it's just expanded at a rate that has never been seen before," Lepp-Kaethler says.

What is this language change doing to our brains?

On the psycholinguistics side of things, Lepp-Kaethler says COVID-19 has caused everyone to experience a number of changes, bringing about stress and anxiety.

"These kinds of things affect our lifestyle and language usage," she says, "so often when crises like this happen, we turn to linguistic creativity and also to humour."

Lepp-Kaethler says a vast amount of memes, tweets, and even ads have taken off, drawing inspiration from our collective experience.

"I think what it shows is the role of language as a coping mechanism," Lepp-Kaethler explains. "Because we have all these new situations we're coming up with these new terms and it allows us to name what is going on in the world.

"When you can name something -- the events, the practices, the social conditions -- then it gives us a new, shared vocabulary," Lepp-Kaethler says. "It helps people cope ... it's not really making light of a difficult situation, but it's that comic relief."

It's also helping bridge vocabulary changes between languages.

Lepp-Kaethler says, for example, the word covidiot -- a combination of COVID-19 and idiot, referring to an individual who does not act responsibly given the seriousness of the virus -- has made its way into Spanish and German vocabularies.

This is in addition to an ongoing phenomenon where other languages are absorbing English terms, Lepp-Kaethler notes.

"As English is a global language, you'll find that more English words are being absorbed into a variety of languages."

COVID-19 has certainly amplified that, given COVID-19's global reach.

Ongoing area of study

As a professor, Lepp-Kaethler says she is looking forward to seeing this area of study developed further. While some conclusions and statistics are already being drawn, she says much more remains to be discovered as the pandemic continues.

It has presented her with some important real-world examples to use for study in her classes, particularly while discussing language change in her sociolinguistics course.

"I was thinking, 'Oh, this would be a great public lecture.'"

Lepp-Kaethler says she also plans on encouraging her students to pursue further study of how the pandemic has impacted language in their own work this term. She also hopes to delve further into the topic herself to perhaps speak on in the near future.