COVID-19 is 2019’s unwanted legacy. Its trail of destruction has left governments and their public health machinery with a cloud of acronyms. The most notorious of these are SARS-CoV-2 and its disease manifestation, COVID-19.
A frenzy of acronyms
The three-letter acronym (TLA) is the lower-order entry point to a mature bureaucracy. You know you’re part of the in crowd when you can pepper your workplace conversation with TLAs. The higher you rise in the organisation, the longer the acronyms get. There is a linguistic efficiency in the use of these short forms. Call it laziness if you want to, but hard-pressed functionaries wield acronyms in verbal briefs and everyday conversation, as if their lives depend on it.
How long is a string?
The machinations behind the emergence, spread and diverse forms of disease we have come to know as COVID-19 are replete with a rich vocabulary of virological, pathophysiological, clinical and epidemiological terms that have been quickly reduced to their respective acronominal versions. Here we’ll resist the temptation to come up with an -al singing, -al dancing acronym that goes from virus to epidemic and back.
If we unwrap COVID-19, we recognise a form of disease, a type of virus and the year of origin all packed into one new alphanumeric string. The number hanging onto the end of COVID-19 is a bit sinister. It implies there might, conceivably, be another such disease at a currently undefined point in the future. Plausible, going from two other members of this disease family; SARS and MERS, which passed the entry level TLA 17 years ago.
Not counting the -19 suffix, the pandemic disease entity has gone even further and matured into a T2F (Type II FLA, or five letter acronym’). This raises an interesting linguistic question: how long can an alphanumeric string be before it ceases to function as a verbal short form? There must be a culminating point where brevity and rhythm of utterance are lost. Is the TLA the sweet spot? Does a four letter acronym (T1F) serve as well if it forms a single syllable?
The viral TLA
Which brings us to the virus itself: THE virus; the one everybody and their fur babies are talking about. That’s the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hardly surprising that the general usage is ‘coronavirus’. It has a ring to it, and not just because it’s surrounded by a ring or corona of nasty adhesive spike proteins. Coronavirus is a proper word that trips off the tongue smoothly, without too much spatter or bioaerosol, unless you need to roll your Rs.
But SARS-CoV-2, the agreed virus designation, is a clumsy concatenation of short forms designed primarily for scientific accuracy; not for linguistic survival under intense worldwide use. Even if you get used to pronouncing the SARS component in its monosyllabic version, those two hyphens denote short pauses. This articulated ELA (yes, eight, not counting hyphens) has too many moving parts. Clunk-y.
Which is why those who deal with THE virus daily don’t use SARS-CoV-2 in normal speech. Its survival in the evolutionary bottleneck of contemporary language depends on its utility for written reports. Even that is in doubt. SARS-CoV-2 can be neatly reduced to a conventional TLA that captures all the information wrapped up in the scientifically correct eight-letter version.
That neat little TLA is “SC2”.
In the interests of brevity, the name of the virus responsible for COVID-19 should be reduced to a three letter acronym like SC2.