From Animal Semen to Dank Memes: The language of COVID-19

By Alex Houdeshell

It seems like all we can talk about these days is the coronavirus. I call up my friends but since all I’ve done for the past week is go to class from the comfort of my bed, and all they’ve done is play video games while lectures drones on in the background, it seems we have nothing to talk about but the coronavirus. When will the quarantine end? Are hospitals at capacity? Did the WHO officially declare a pandemic?

In talking about the coronavirus, we use a lot of language that doesn’t typically fill our vocabularies. Where did all this language come from? Today, we’ll take a look at the etymologies of some coronavirus-related words.


The name of the disease itself is perhaps the only brand new term being added to the English lexicon because of this pandemic. According to the lexiconnoisseurs at the Center for Disease Control, COVID-19 quite literally breaks down into COronaVIrus Disease-2019. Originally they were calling it the “2019 novel coronavirus” or 2019-nCoV, but that just doesn’t have the same ring. The word “coronavirus” on its own refers to a whole category of viruses. The prefix “corona” comes from the halo-like crown or “corona” visible on the virus under a microscope.


To break things down even further, the word “virus” has an interesting etymology tracing all the way back to animal semen. In its original Latin form, “virus” referred to “poison, venom, or animal semen.” It was used for the first time in English to mean “pus” in the slammer of a sentence “If þe virus be wiþoute heete […] waische it wiþ watir” (translation: “If the virus is without heat […] wash it with water”). Although the word primarily meant “venom” for several centuries, in 1900 the Journal of Comparative Pathology and Therapeutics introduced the biological meaning of “virus” by describing it as a microscopic pathogen. While for many years this broad definition allowed all kinds of pathogens to be called viruses, today we use the word to specifically refer to RNA or DNA wrapped in a protein coat, distinct from organisms like bacteria (fun fact: viruses actually don’t meet the definition of a “living thing” because they cannot propagate on their own without a host). But even this scientific definition isn’t where the story of the word ends. 

David Gerrold’s 1972 novel When Harlie Was One introduced the then-fictional idea of a computer virus, just one great example of science fiction literally predicticting the future. This concept became a reality in 1981 when a middle-schooler created the first real-life computer virus called “Elk-Cloner.” Since then, the term “viral” has also been used to refer to the rapid word-of-mouth or internet-assisted spread of videos, words, ideas, and concepts.


Pandemic comes from the Greek pan meaning “common, all;” demos meaning “people;” and ic meaning “of or belonging to a place.” The word “endemic” actually emerged first, en meaning “in.” So in a kind of literal way, endemic means “in the people belonging to a place.” Sort of. It appeared in literature for the first time ever in Homer’s classic, the Odyssey with the fairly different denotation “being at homeland.” The word first became associated with disease thanks to Hippocrates’ volumes titled “Epidemics” that described different syndromes. The word “pandemic” appeared in the mid-17th century pretty interchangeably with “epidemic.” In the late 1800s “pandemic” began to be defined by a larger geographic breadth, which leads straight into the distinction today. Today, an epidemic is a disease affecting a large number of people in one community or country. Before COVID-19 had spread far from Wuhan, China, it was considered an epidemic. A pandemic, on the other hand, is when an epidemic spreads over multiple countries or continents. The World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, while colleges everywhere officially declared spring break canceled.


When I was a kid, I first heard the word “quarantine” in a Tommy DePaolo book where the kids were being quarantined with scarlet fever, and all their toys were burned to prevent the spread of disease. To me, as a selfish child, this seemed like the worst possible fate. Not because of the isolation, but because of all the perfectly good toys being toasted to ash. Today, quarantine is more than a old-world threat, although the meaning may come from the old world. During the days of the Black Death, in what is now Dubrovik, Croatia, city officials instituted a trentino, a forced 30 days of isolation for ships coming from infected parts of the world. This practice was adopted by other cities, and over time, the isolation time changed from 30 days to 40, becoming a quarantino. The reason for this change is unclear, although some hypothesize it has some kind of biblical significance, given that Jesus fasted for 40 days and Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for the same length of time. Or maybe they just figured longer isolation meant less risk of the sickness surviving. 

Today, our terminology may not come with an end-date attached, but for your sake, and for mine, I hope our quarantine ends soon.

Alex Houdeshell is the Long River Review blog editor and a nonfiction panel reader. She can be reached at

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