The coronavirus pandemic has upended so many aspects of our daily lives that discussions about COVID-19 have become as familiar as breathing. As a result, people have become extremely lazy about how they refer to the coronavirus disease that caused so much confusion and havoc. Perhaps one of the worst offenders has been CNN.
Many news outlets have started to systematically botch references to the coronavirus disease. The World Health Organization designated the disease from the virus as COVID-19, an abbreviation for the 2019 variant of a corona (CO) virus (VI) disease (D). The virus itself has been designated SARS-CoV-2.
Yet news outlets have become extremely lazy in referencing the disease. A recent CNN article, exhibiting an ongoing trend, referred to “Covid” in the headline — as if “covid” were a word, not an acronym — and referred to “Covid-19 concerns” in the text of the article. Even the British Medical Journal has referred to the disease as “covid-19.”
The Guardian laid out a rationale for the lowercase spelling, based on British capitalization conventions. “I explained that, like most British newspapers, the Guardian’s style is to use uppercase for abbreviations that are written and spoken as a collection of letters, such as BBC, IMF and NHS, whereas acronyms pronounced as words go upper and lower, eg Nasa, Unicef and, now, Covid-19,” Elisabeth Ribbans wrote.
I cannot quibble with that logic. If a paper will even make NASA and UNICEF lowercase, it stands to reason that “Covid-19” would be a defensible stylistic choice.
Yet even Ribbans admitted that COVID-19 is an abbreviation, not a word. According to American English standards, abbreviations are always capitalized. Americans wouldn’t lowercase NASA or UNICEF, so they shouldn’t lowercase COVID-19. The Associated Press still capitalizes COVID-19, as does the American Medical Association’s Manual of Style.
Americans often refer to the coronavirus disease, the coronavirus itself, or the pandemic in general as “Covid.” It has become a placeholder, a false name for something we are too lazy to actually say in full. That seems perfectly acceptable in conversation, but the written word is often held to a higher standard than everyday speech.
When American news outlets like CNN decide to lowercase COVID-19, they aren’t making a stylistic choice so much as they’re being lazy and surrendering to the verbal conventions on the pandemic. It seems the editors at CNN have forgotten that COVID-19 is an abbreviation, not a word.
A humble request from this editor: Don’t be like CNN.