COVID-19 capitalisation

Abu Jar M Akkas | Published: 00:00, Apr 19,2021

 
 

A PRAGMATIC purpose came up, calling for a change in the capitalisation of the word COVID-19. We at New Age have written the word in uppercase since the World Health Organisation on February 11, 2020 named the disease so — an acronym from ‘COronaVIrus Disease 19’ that can be pronounced. The WHO named the virus ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2’, or SARS-CoV-2 for short.

After the disease had broken out in Wuhan, China and been identified on December 31, 2019, it came to be referred to as the novel coronavirus, which is a new or novel type of the virus named for spiky projections on its surface, from the Latin word corona, which means crown. The World Health Organisation in January 2020 recommended as interim names 2019-nCov, novel coronavirus of 2019, for the virus and 2109-nCov acute respiratory disease for the disease.

Only seven out of hundreds of coronaviruses are said to affect humans. Four of them — 229E, NL63, OC43 and HKU1 — are common and they cause mild cold or flu-like symptoms. Three other types of coronavirus expose humans to more risks.

SARS-CoV, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, made the first human cases in southern China in November 2002 and the outbreak could be contained by the middle of 2003, with 8,000 cases in 26 countries and 774 death.

MERS-CoV, or Middle East respiratory syndrome, emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012 although initial cases were later traced back to Jordan. There have been 2,400 reported cases in 27 countries since then, with more than 200 cases in 2019.

SARS-CoV-2 appeared in Wuhan, China in December 2019 after an increase was noticed in pneumonia cases with no known cause. Within a few months, SARS-CoV-2, whose exact source is still unknown, spread to hundreds of countries through human-to-human transmission. And it has since then not ceased either to batter life on the earth or to make the headlines every day.

We at New Age called the virus as the China or Wuhan virus because either of them was shorter than the ‘novel coronavirus’ and make space well in the headlines. Disagreement cropped up as to why to call a virus after a place name as it might promote slur. But diseases and viruses continue to be named, and called, after place names. The coronavirus that made the headlines in 2012 is named after Middle East. Zika virus was first isolated in the Ziika Forests of Uganda in 1947 and it has been so named. Spanish influenza, which dates back to 1890, became Spanish flu when it became a pandemic in 1918.

But we have tried to stick to how the WHO has named and spelt the virus in question — COVID-19. There might be countless instances that it has also been mis-capitalised as Covid-19 and gone in print. We have even dropped the year of origin, 2019, from the name in some cases, unwittingly and willingly.

When the news editor, Shahiduzzaman, called my attention the other day when I was passing by his desk to if we should or could change the capitalisation rule for COVID-19, we almost instantly made a decision. This is the first official change in our house style after The Stylebook of New Age, perhaps the first in a Bangladeshi newspaper, came out in October 2004 for in-house consumption.

The word COVID-19, as we write in uppercase in the face of Palatino Linotype that we use in headlines, at 50 points spans 17.75 picas and the news desk was all for writing it in mixed cases such as Covid-19, which spans 15.5 picas in the font. The space that the mixed-case word leaves could help another word to fit into headlines. Although the italic form of a typeface is usually 10 to 15 per cent narrower than the roman form, it hardly works to leave so much space free.

Although the WHO, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the Associated Press and noted publication styles such as MLA and APA still hold brief for uppercase for the word as COVID-19, many other newspapers, especially the Guardian of the United Kingdom which had a significant influence on us when we were drawing up our own house style, started writing it in mixed cases as Covid-19. Mixed-case words are less intrusive and this has been a prime reason for us to use abbreviations cautiously and refer to, for example, the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh by saying ‘the corporation’ on any subsequent mention after spelling it out on the first. The Stylebook of New Age also lays out uppercase for abbreviations and mixed cases for acronyms, with a few exceptions.

The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, in an update released in April 2020, included the word Covid-19, saying that this is the shortening of coronavirus disease 2019, in mixed cases, with a redefinition and a second sense added later. We have the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which was known as the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English that dropped the phrase ‘of Current English’ in its fourth edition in 1989, as a ready reference in case ambiguity arises as to establish if words are hyphenated, a single word or two words.

Some newspapers in the English-speaking world used CV-19 to name the disease as early as, as the OED update site says, January 22, 2020 because CV was the abbreviation used for coronavirus well before the pandemic in 1985. The OED also attests Covid as being used to mean Covid-19, and overwhelmingly without the definite article ‘the’, as its corpus data say, although ‘the’ is encountered in expressions such as ‘the spread of the coronavirus’ as much as it is not such as ‘the spread of coronavirus’ probably because people use ‘the’ to specify the specific coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

In view of the principles that we have adhered to in our house style and the pragmatic purpose that pushed the news desk to call it into attention, we have decided to use the word in mixed cases as Covid-19, preferably always, as a noun, such as ‘social distancing to reduce the spread of Covid-19’ or ‘public health response to Covid-19’, and Covid, as a modifier such as Covid cases, Covid patients or Covid crisis and in compound nouns such as ‘pre-Covid situation’ or ‘post-Covid times.’ Although Covid-19 can well fit in as a modifier such as Covid-19 cases or Covid-19 patients, expressions that may have more hyphens such as ‘pre-Covid-19 situation’ looks a bit cumbersome and are best avoided.

 

Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.

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