• Carolyn M Holmes

COVID-19, what's in a name?

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

As the world now knows, Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is the name of a new strain of coronavirus disease first identified in Wuhan City, China. The virus name is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).



The WHO goal is described on their website as, 'WHO works worldwide to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable. Our goal is to ensure that a billion more people have universal health coverage, to protect a billion more people from health emergencies, and provide a further billion people with better health and well-being'.


If you want up to date, detailed information on the virus and its spread, I suggest you head for the WHO website and listen to their press briefings on the news or online (YouTube etc).


Having heard the disease name, COVID -19 on the news, I wondered how someone decided on that particular one. According to the WHO best practice guidelines (where you will find the full official details), there needs to be at least (briefly summarised below),

  • Avoidance of using any negative words that could affect trade and travel, or create fear

  • No offence to anyone (for example, use the name of countries, people, animals, cultures, food, industries)

  • A name given by those who discover it otherwise the WHO will allocate a temporary one

  • A brand new disease for humans, with a substantial public health impact

  • No name allocated already

  • A short, descriptive term which identifies the cause of the disease

  • The year it was identified and number included

  • A final name allocated by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD)

This all makes sense to me. Sadly, it can all go horribly wrong as shown in this article 'The Tricky politics of naming a virus' by Zaria Gorvett , where she states,

One reason it’s so difficult to get us all to agree is that, though there are some 7,111 languages in the world today, collectively encompassing millions of words, it’s surprisingly difficult to find an option that won’t ruffle any feathers. If the wrong word sticks, it could stigmatise an entire region, decimate an industry, or even cause a diplomatic crisis.

So now you know how a name is decided. None of this is straightforward, let alone the management of the spread of the disease, for which our hearts and thoughts go out to those are affected by it in any way. Advice on how to protect yourself from COVID -19 can be found here on the WHO website.


Carolyn is the author of the 'Manage your language, How to get ahead in Health and Social Care' series of books of useful words and phrases to use at work and impress others. Find out more here https://amzn.to/37SLZej and FB @manageyourlanguage