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Since lots of people are WFH (USE Telecommuting) right now due to the global pandemic, it occurs to me that, in addition to the uptick in usage of some terms like those linked in the previous clause, some novel concepts have been added to the lexicon of generally accepted terminology.

As a taxonomist, I’m interested in both how language (and terminology) usage evolves but also, in a basic way, how things are named.

Now I’m not a biological (or Linnean) taxonomist, but there’s a difference between the virus being transmitted and the disease it causes. I’m seeing lots of emails from corporations (suddenly concerned about my health) that say things like “coronavirus, also known as COVID-19” which is incorrect.

Viruses vs Diseases

The virus in question is called, officially, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). As the name implies, it is related to the SARS virus that caused a much less widespread outbreak in 2003.

Both the new strain (often called Novel Coronavirus-19 for short) and the previously famous SARS belong to a family called coronaviruses known to cause a variety of respiratory conditions from mild colds to acute respiratory distress or failure, but it’s important that these conditions are separate from the viruses causing them.

Those interested in the biological taxonomy of this family of viruses can consult the corresponding entry in the NCBI catalog.

But a virus is an organism, not a disease. The corresponding disease for Novel Coronavirus-19 is currently being called simply Coronavirus Disease, or COVID-19 for short. The best resources for more information are the CDC and the WHO.

New Concepts Going Viral

It’s fascinating how quickly concepts spread. While I admit that (of course) I live in my own information bubble, it seems to me that just about a week or so ago most people had never heard of or used the terms social distancing or flattening the curve, which are now in general circulation. That is to say: in a parallel situation to the virus-disease pairing outlined above, social distancing is a series of steps undertaken to achieve the flattening of the curve.

So stay at home, wash your hands, and understand the difference between viruses and diseases.

Hands washing in clean water