How COVID-19 Has Changed The Italian Language

From droplet to covidiota, our rapidly evolving vocabulary reflects our unprecedented times.

COVID-19 Italian Language
Image created by Fernando Cobelo. Submitted for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives.

From droplet to covidiota, our rapidly evolving vocabulary reflects our unprecedented times.

Every year the directors of the Italian dictionary Devoto-Oli issue a new version to include new words and meanings that have entered popular discourse. This year, the dictionary was compelled to release a 600-new word update to confront the impact that COVID-19 has had on the Italian language.

According to both experts and institutions, the pandemic has overhauled our vocabulary and radically altered the way we communicate. Languages are an archive of social change, and idioms serve the critical function of encapsulating new concepts and ideas. In turn, these changes to language leave their marks on our world: new words allow people to make sense of situations that would not have otherwise been articulated. Context matters, and we shape it as much as it shapes us. 

Old words in a new light

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, old Italian dictionaries (like the 2018 version by Hoepli) neatly defined coronavirus as “a crown-like virus bringing about respiratory disturbances.” This inoffensive blurb would have slipped unnoticed at any other time. 

The 2020 outbreak supercharged the term with both potency and value, so much so that the Italian encyclopedia Treccani entered coronavirus as a new word due to its tremendous impact on society. According to Google Trends, searches for ‘coronavirus’ were among the most prolific of the year, skyrocketing between February and April 2020.

So too have some of our more banal words become descriptive not only of the challenges we collectively face but of the impact of them on our daily lives. Before the pandemic, people would use tamponare to describe the unfortunate yet common occurrence of a rear-end collision. Today, tamponare is much more likely to refer to healthcare operators running swab tests for COVID-19. And so we change as life changes us, just as the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure once said: “Time changes all things; there is no reason why language should escape this universal law.” And nothing speeds up time like a global pandemic. 

Mapping new worlds with new expressions: from the First World War…

Throughout history, difficult moments have given rise to new ways of expressing those times. Many new Italian words developed out of the hardships of the First World War, in particular when cross-fertilized by terms from abroad. Words like camerata (comrade) and gotha (meaning elite) have their origins in German language, while trincea (trench) and ardito (brave, referring as a noun for Italian military corps) come from the French. At the same time, new terms entered the picture to depict the inventions of the 19th century. The Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio made up the word velivolo (aircraft), a precursor to the modern aeroplano (airplane). Other words emerged to address the peculiar and particular human condition of the time: panciafichista, a coward that would rather have his belly full of figs than wage war, was tremendously popular when Italy declared its neutrality in 1914 at the outbreak of the Great War.

And although Italian fascism tried to stem foreign expressions from inclusion in national dictionaries, the phenomenon was too overwhelming to stop. Even today, the Italian language borrows words from other countries and largely from English speech. But in a year where neologisms took over, even Treccani had little choice but to compile a list of pandemic related words that became the closest thing to a universal language our world has seen.

… To the COVID-19 outbreak

Back at that old stalwart Devoto-Oli, editors stated that lockdown was the life-or-death update for 2020. According to the board, the word has joined the dictionary without being translated — like French and Spanish dictionaries. Perhaps there is no translation for a word that encompasses our collective experience and tragedy. Lockdown so epitomizes the condition of billions of people in 2020 that even the Collins English Dictionary crowned it the term of the year.

Besides these, other words have flowered during the pandemic. Italian dictionaries have included and translated droplet and spillover (the last referring to the virus’ transmission between species). Admittedly, although corresponding Italian words gocciolina and salto di specie exist, they sound less cool than their English counterpart. 

Perhaps of the most exhilarating words is covidiot, translated by some Italian boomers and coronavirus deniers as covidiota. While English speakers use the term referring to people ignoring public health warnings, Italians have taken it one step further in our characteristic fashion. Indeed, one may cross digital paths with Italian boomers condeming ‘covidiota’ on Facebook posts about coronavirus. But their tendency is to paint their opponents as covidioti when they are overly concerned or otherwise make forecasts about COVID-19 that are overblown or too catastrophic. Leave it to the negationists to make a false friend. They are nothing if not consistent. 

Keeping a record of tragedies

Our lexicon records every rough event of its history, and the spread of disease has existed in both deed and word for centuries. In fact, the Italian language already has a word for addressing a plague spreader: untore. The term finds its roots in the terrible plague that ravaged Milan in 1630. At that time, the need to identify a person passing an infection necessitated a new word that people continue to use during the COVID-19 pandemic. That said, experts find that many new terms find their way into dictionaries due to the urgency of the context in which they’re invented, but few put down roots and remain. Let’s hope that only a couple of these words settle in our dictionaries and discourse, as harsh reminders of the world that COVID-19 created.

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