Quarantine, carriers and face masks: the language of the coronavirus

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by Liz Walter

As coronavirus (officially called COVID-19) continues to dominate the news, I thought it might be useful to look at some of the language we use to talk about it. Regular readers will know my obsession with collocations (word partners), and there are lots of good ones in this topic, most of which can be applied to other diseases too.

The first is that people contract a virus (= get it). When a disease passes very easily from one person to another, as this one does, we say that it is extremely infectious or highly contagious. People that have it and may pass it to others are known as carriers. Some people seem to be more infectious (= pass on the disease more) than others, and these people are known as super-spreaders.

The first person to get a new disease is known as patient zero. When a patient has signs that they are ill, we say that they show/display symptoms, in this case a fever (= high temperature), cough and respiratory difficulty (= problems with breathing). The period between catching the illness and showing symptoms is the incubation period.

We use the word cases to refer to people who have a disease, e.g. There have been several cases of COVID-19 in the UK. When doctors have done tests and are sure that people have it, we call them confirmed or diagnosed cases. If doctors find that someone has the disease, we say that they test positive for it. If there is an unusually high number, we say that there is a spike in cases, whereas if numbers seem to have reached their highest level and are now falling, with no expectation that they will rise again, we say that they have peaked.

We often talk about the mortality rate of a disease to say what proportion of people die from it. The death toll is the number of people who have died. The start of a disease is called the outbreak. At the time of writing this post, COVID-19 hasn’t been classified as a pandemic (= a disease that has spread all over the world), but it has the potential to become one.

Governments have to decide how to control/contain the spread of the virus. Towns and cities may be put/placed on/in lockdown so that nobody can enter or leave them, countries may close their borders (= stop letting people from other countries in) and airlines sometimes suspend flights (= stop flying) to certain places.

People who may have the disease are often put/placed in quarantine (= made to stay somewhere away from other people). Passengers returning from an area with coronavirus may be asked to self-quarantine (= stay away from other people voluntarily). Despite the fact that most experts don’t think they are effective, some countries have seen huge queues for face masks (= covers for your mouth and nose). Meanwhile, scientists are racing to develop a vaccine (= make medicine that will stop people getting the virus).

I hope you find these words and phrases useful – and please stay safe!

95 thoughts on “Quarantine, carriers and face masks: the language of the coronavirus

  1. aleov

    Unfortunately these terms are necesary to know, to be able to express correctly about a desease like coronavirus or any other.

      1. Celestin DUTSHER

        Howdy dear writers.
        I even miss words to thank you for the good job that you are doing. It’s such an excellent, informative and fruitful article. I wish you luck, success and happiness for all your endeavors.
        Keep it up guys and long life to y’all.

      1. Jason, Han (Jixun)

        “Contract a virus” means “to get a virus”… This phrase was quite necessary to understand an advanced theory of the relationship between virus and us…
        From nature to say: virus, in its history of evolution, did not really wish to kill people… You know, while people die, virus itself will also die… However, virus desired too much for its own life till being out of control, then people lost life… it would also die… “To make a contract with virus”, from medical cares, to tell it “what functions and lines we can co-use for life, but what red lines &functions it can’t touch…” Finally, we will really contract a virus under control, and we will not die… Virus gets back to nature, and the hope of mankind’s life comes back…We can say: it’s overcome… But, how painful this contract was, or we can call it, the dangerous lesson or nature’s punishment… !
        Besides, ‘Mortality rate’ is a phrase easily remembered. We all know that ‘Mortal’ means ‘like common people who, one day, all will die’… using its noun to describe what death rate means to us… will get away the fear but more objectively touching its nature…
        Finally, I prefer the word “lockdown” to describe many cities’ situations, currently. If cities can ‘be lockdown’…, there must be some days they ‘re-unlocked up’… By waiting for this “switching”, people, living in these cities, can re-get their hopes, and return back to normal and regular…
        Thanks for providing those words for COVID-19 period.

  2. ningxu

    Thank you for sharing! Almost every common word used in this catastrophe was covered in this blog ; but there is one word I didn’t catch somehow.
    It refers to the place where patient zero was found and that place has the most confirmed cases in the world. How to describe that place in English?

    1. Liz Walter

      Good question! I don’t think we have a specific word for it, but we might say ‘the epicentre’, meaning the most important central point, or simply something like ‘the place where the virus originated’.

      1. nisardawlatzai007gmailcom

        Thank you so much for sharing ! the epicenter is more common for an earthquake. can we use instead of the lockdown the word curfew?

    1. Eva

      Coronavirus is a hot potato today. It’s scared me. Thanks for the article. Now I’m able to discuss the desease with my language partner.

      1. Warner Montoya from Costa Rica

        Thanks for your article. It surely helps non-native speakers like me.

  3. Denis

    Another splendid article! Ta. 🙂
    There’s only one thing that I cannot really take in:
    You’re saying, ‘if numbers seem as though they are continuing to fall, we say that they have peaked’.
    The verb ‘peak’ means to reach the highest point, level, etc. Furthermore, using the present perfect (have peaked), we are referring to the present situation, which in this case means that the numbers are still remaining at their highest level, doesn’t it? For instance, when I hear that something has peaked, I assume that it is still at the highest point/level at the present time (due to the present perfect being used) and accordingly has not fallen yet. Otherwise, I’d say that something had peaked or just ‘peaked’ at some point in the past. At the same time, when the numbers have already fallen and are still continuing to fall further (as it follows from your example), I would simply say that they have fallen/dropped/decreased/etc. or that they are falling or have been falling.
    Essentially, I’m wondering whether it would be acceptable to say that something has peaked whereas it actually has already fallen.

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, I agree that’s not very clear! And yes, when something peaks, it reaches its highest point. But
      I think that when people say for instance, that coronavirus has peaked in China, they mean that it has reached its highest point *and is unlikely to return to that level*, rather than simply that it is at its highest level.

      1. Denis

        Yes, but some people might reasonably think that it is still at its highest level there (in China) because of the meaning of the word peak in concert with the present perfect. Nevertheless, I see where you’re coming from. Thanks.

    1. Liz Walter

      Those are good words, but we use ‘endemic’ for diseases that regularly occur somewhere, which isn’t the case for COVID-19. It is definitely an ‘epidemic’ though (a disease that affects a lot of people) – the question is when/if it will be classified as a pandemic.

  4. ismail dolen

    The level which to begin falling is named peak (the highest level). But I wonder the sentence “if numbers seem as though they are continuing to fall, we say that they have peaked” is correct or not.

  5. Thomas Chen

    Hi Liz,

    I have a grammar question:

    “When a patient has signs that they are ill, we say that they show/display symptoms…”

    Why use a plural pronoun (“they”) when it is only “a patient” ?

    Thank you!

  6. Haitham Ghazy

    I find this article is very smart, and its words will stay in my mind because you posted it in the proper time. It is literally
    touching our real-life at that moment.


  7. Fidier Rescia Alvarado

    Dear Liz Walter,
    As always, Very useful, interesting and pro-ethical your articles. Thank you for allowing us to read your work.

  8. Sara Marie Stelloh

    Awesome article and play/of colloquiums! One thing about this virus and every one prior and going forward…people WASH your HANDS, and we won’t have a/or any potential pandemic on our hands! Thanks and keep up your informative blogs!

  9. Nacho Garrido Lopez

    In this article l have found all vocabulary necessary for speak about the coronavirus. Thank you so much.

  10. Marta Godlewska

    Isn’t there a mistake? “…whereas if numbers seem as though they are continuing to fall, we say that they have peaked.” Peaked? Doesn’t it mean to reach the highest, strongest, or best point, value, or level of skill? So how falling numbers can peak? Don’t get it 🙁 Help!

    1. Denis

      Bear in mind that if something has peaked, it doesn’t indubitably mean it is at the highest point now. It can mean that, though, but it doesn’t have to. A precise meaning would depend on the context.
      The thing is, we use the present perfect simple to refer to events in the past but which connect to the present. In other words – when a single past action has a connection with the present.
      Thus, it is important to know that we use the present perfect simple with action verbs to emphasize the completion of an event in the recent past. At the same time, we often use words like just or recently for events taking place a very short time before now. Consequently, if something peaked in the recent past and is still relevant to the present, we can say that it has recently peaked even though it is already falling at the moment. The word recently in this case would make a little bit more sense.

      No need to thank me. 🙂

    2. sherriefisher

      We say the number of people infected peaked at 6000 in May. So, the disease reached its height of infection then. But we don’t know the peak was reached until numbers start falling.

      1. Denis

        You’re right, but the point was a bit different.
        The question was whether it is correct to say that numbers have peaked whereas they in fact have already fallen.
        Liz said it is correct. I brought up a grammar point and suggested that it is technically correct but doesn’t make much sense in that particular context and thus is not accurate enough. Liz agreed.

        For more information, read my comments above.

  11. We accept it, it is a pandemic, just governments are continuing to report cases instead of precisely looking for ways to surpass the spread of this lethal virus, citizen should continue to be responsible for their own asylum and should report the cases immediately and be at the vanguard to spread the message to create awareness

  12. China put 46 million people on lockdown to contain the Wuhan coronavirus.
    Authorities responded by putting the entire city in lockdown.
    Security officials then put the nuclear station on lockdown.

    I was bothered that we can say both ‘on lockdown’ and ‘in lockdown,’ and found several sentences online.
    What is the difference between in and on?
    Thank you for the helpful post.

    1. Denis

      With ‘lockdown’, both ‘in’ & ‘on’ can be used, and there is no difference in meaning. ‘On’ seems to be a bit more common, though. You can also say ‘under lockdown’.

      ‘Schools were put in lockdown, and students sent home early.’

      ‘Security officials then put the nuclear station on lockdown.’

      ‘But even though Times Square was under lockdown for a couple of hours this morning, we are happy to report that traffic is once again flowing.’

    1. Liz Walter

      Well, it wouldn’t be incorrect, but very few people would understand you! (It’s an extremely rare word outside medicine.)

  13. Very good post regarding the importance and benefits of construction signs. These safety signs should be made mandatory in construction place as it can be helpful in avoiding injuries.

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