Wednesday, May 12, 2021

RETRO Episode 79: Why did we name it COVID-19? Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

RETRO Episode 79: Why did we name it COVID-19?

Record Date: May 11, 2021

Air Date: May 12, 2021

Original Air Date: March 12, 2020



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison


And I’m Dan Pugh. This week we are going to the archives to revisit how we got the name for the novel coronavirus that is still making its way across the planet, COVID-19. This episode originally aired March 12, 2020 which was in the early phases of the current global pandemic. 


But before we jump into it, we want to say a huge thank you to our Patrons, including Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez. 

Our patrons get exclusive behind the scenes content, early access to episodes, and access to our videos so you can actually watch along as Dan and I make the show. 

If you are in a financially stable place, and would like to support this educational artform, we encourage you to check out the options. We are bunnytrailspod on Patreon, or find links to everything we do at


Near the end of this episode we share some of our favorite early COVID memes. We’d love to see some of your favorite memes. Find us on any of our social media accounts: Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram all @bunnytrailspod, or comment on our website and share your favorite COVID meme.


But for now, enjoy how we got the name COVID 19. 

Bunny Trails

Episode 79 : Coronavirus

Record Date: March 12, 2020

Air Date: March 12, 2020


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Every Wednesday, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from its entry to the English language, to how it’s used today. 

Today you may hear some additional background sounds as we are recording outdoors in the beautiful 67 degrees of Wichita, KS. Why recording outside? Well Shauna and I are having one heck of a month. Shauna works in public information for a school district, and I work in emergency preparedness with a specialty in pandemic planning. And we are in the early stages of a global pandemic. 

And for that reason, going to deviate a little bit from talking about one phrase and instead talk about a single word… coronavirus.


Coronavirus Definition

According to the Oxford English Dictionary a Coronavirus is any member of the genus Coronavirus of enveloped, single-stranded RNA viruses which have prominent projections from the envelope and are pathogens of humans, other mammals, and birds, typically causing gastrointestinal, respiratory, or neurological disease; (in form Coronavirus) the genus itself.

We discovered coronaviruses in the mid 1960s, as this 1968 article in the journal Nature attests:

1968   Nature 16 Nov. 650/2   In the opinion of the eight virologists, these viruses are members of a previously unrecognised group which they suggest should be called the coronaviruses, to recall the characteristic appearance [sc. recalling the solar corona] by which these viruses are identified in the electron microscope.


The word corona comes to us from Latin, meaning Latin cor┼Źna crown, chaplet or wreath, fillet or circlet of gold or other material. We also see it in Greek with meaning curved or crown, which itself comes from a Proto Indo European word for turn, or bend. 

In the 1600s, we saw the word be applied to celestial bodies: 

A small circle or disc of light (usually prismatically coloured) appearing round the sun or moon. 

1670   H. Stubbe Plus Ultra 150   The reflexion of the glasses..did create a corona of several colours.

And more widely now, to similar phenomena in optical instruments - an example being electron microscopes.


Virus comes to us from Latin meaning poisonous secretion or venom. It morphed to in the 1400s to mean “pus or other discharge produced by an ulcer or wound.” and then later: a substance produced within the body by a disease, esp. when contagious or infectious or used for vaccination; (also) any agent causing an infectious disease.

Now, we typically use virus to mean a biological agent that reproduces inside the cells of living hosts by making identical copies of itself.

We recommend you check out for more about the etymologies of words like quarantine, woozy, corona, and virus. 


The current global pandemic we are experiencing is due to a novel coronavirus. Novel comes to us from Middle French and in this case means “recent, new or unusual, or  newly made”. In medicine, when we refer to a novel virus, it means we haven’t seen it before, or it is a newly formed type. 

So that’s how we arrived at coronaviruses. 

What is Coronavirus?

There are 4 common human coronaviruses, which can commonly cause upper respiratory infections or, colloquially, the common cold.

229E (alpha coronavirus)

NL63 (alpha coronavirus)

OC43 (beta coronavirus)

HKU1 (beta coronavirus)

Some other coronaviruses you may have heard of include MERS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS), and SARS-CoV (the beta coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS)

Naming Conventions

When naming viruses, there are 3 names to be decided: the virus, the disease, and the species. Each of these may be different names, and each may be named by different groups. We’ll talk about the first two of these, virus and disease, because the full taxonomy has not yet been identified.

The coronavirus everyone is talking about right now has been determined to belong to the existing species, Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus. Because of this, the virus has been named "severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2" (SARS-CoV-2). Just because it’s part of the same species doesn’t mean everything is the same between the two. The virus name is selected by a team of expert virologist, many of whom are part of the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses - Coronaviridae Study Group. 

Taxonomy is the study of classifying things, they have basically named themselves the International Committee for Classifying Viruses. So many options, but scientists are uber practical. The ICTV is concerned with the designation and naming of virus taxa (i.e. species, genus, family, etc.). And for this virus, we don’t have those answers as of the time of this recording.

The disease name is decided by the World Health Organization, or W H O. They prefer the initialism, not the acronym. Maybe they didn’t want to compete with rock bands The Who or Guess Who, but they have stuck with W H O. So as most of you already know, the name of the disease has been designated as COVID-19 by the WHO. 

CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease, and 19 for the first year we saw cases. Additionally, WHO has strict guidance they follow for the naming of diseases, and the use of Countries or locations is not allowed. We still have people calling the 1918 flu the “Spanish Flu” despite the fact that it did not originate in Spain. Spain just had honest reporting during WW1, unlike the United States, United Kingdom, and other countries that were suppressing reports of cases for fear it would make them look weak to their enemies. But that’s another topic entirely. 

You won’t hear the WHO use the virus name of SARS 2.  From a risk communications perspective, they feared using the name SARS could have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003. 

For that reason and a few others, WHO refers to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus” when communicating with the public.

I know it can be confusing for the virus and the disease to have different names, but this is common because they have different functions. 

Viruses are named for their genetic structure which helps to develop diagnostic testing, vaccines, and medicines.

Diseases are named to enable discussion on things like disease prevention, its spread, and treatment.

Some other examples of viruses being called something different than their disease are:

  • HIV is the virus that causes AIDS

  • Rubeola is the virus that causes Measles

So to recap, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 is a virus that causes the disease, COVID-19.

A Quick Thank You

This week’s episode is sponsored by our Patrons! 

We’ve been saying that Bunny Trails is free, but that’s actually not true. Bunny Trails is made available at no cost to you. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons, including Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez. 

Because of Pat, Mary, and many others, you don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy Bunny Trails week after week. Shauna and I both volunteer our time, but there are still very real costs to making this show, including hosting, transcription services, 

equipment, and more. 

So, if you are in a financially stable place, and would like to support this 

educational artform, we encourage you to check out the options at, or you can link to it from our website,

Oh, and we want to give a happy birthday to one of our favorite podcasters, Moxie from the Your Brain on Facts podcast. Your Brain on Facts turned two this week, and Moxie had her actual birthday this past week as well. So happy birthday to both Moxie and Your Brain on Facts. 

Pop Culture and Modern Examples

So COVID-19 is dangerous, especially to older people and those with existing risk factors. But there are also so many choice memes, and on Bunny Trails we try not to get too serious cause the world has plenty of that already.  So we’re gonna trend toward the humorous and slightly dark, but not too dark.

Of the Memes - 

I know this one is one of your personal favorites, Shauna. This was a social media post from the City of Round Rock, Texas as a public service announcement.

— Round Rock city government public service announcement

Here’s an article from the online satirical new site: Burrard Street Journal

Corona Beer Offers 15 million

Constellation Brands, the company behind Corona beer, have offered up to $15 million to help change the Coronavirus’ name to the BudLightvirus.

Executives at Constellation are thought to be ‘incredibly concerned’ with the rising publicity of the deadly virus, that has so far killed over 100 people and have pledged an initial $10 million to change the Coronavirus name to “literally anything else” with a further $5 million if the name change is BudLightvirus.

So why the new name change?

“Well for one BudLightvirus really rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?” Constellation CEO Bill Newlands told CNN. “And when you think of a disgusting virus that forces you to cover your nose or mouth if you come into contact with it, you think of Bud Lite so we feel the new name is more apt.”

“I mean how many people have died from consuming too much Corona?” he added. “Probably no one. Bud Lite however? Probably millions.”

“The name doesn’t have to be BudLightvirus we would also accept the MillerLiteVirus, the HeinekenVirus or even the CoronaIsActuallyReallyGoodForYouVirus.”

If the offer isn’t accepted, Corona have not ruled out the potential of suing the virus for defamation and have already submitted a cease and desist letter to the Coronavirus, demanding it stop killing people.

And in case that wasn’t clear - it’s satire. The OED defines Satire as “a work of art which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness, esp. as a form of social or political commentary.”

One more, and this one comes straight from the official Twitter account of Tito’s Vodka. For background, there has been a rumour that you can use vodka to make your own sanitizer. So whenever someone tags Tito’s in that kind of a post, they respond this this helpful and informative information:

Wrap up...

The CDC recommends frequently washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.

You can use hand sanitizer if you are unable to wash your hands, but washing your hands is better. 

You also have to stop touching your face. Which now that I am cognizant of it, I touch my face ALL THE TIME!!! I need one of those dog cones of shame to put around my neck… you know, for my own good. 

One last thing, we want to give a shout out to Ryan and Amy at the Lexitecture podcast for reaching 2 years AND hitting the 100,000 download mark. Great job you two!


Dan:  That’s about all the time we’ve got for today. This week, I am asking you to leave a review for Bunny Trails on Apple Podcasts, or whatever podcasting app you use. And hit us up on Twitter @bunnytrailspod so we can thank you for leaving the review!!! 


Spreading the word with your friends and family is the best way to support the show. But if you want to support the show without having to talk to real life humans, you can do it with a monthly contribution. Head to and avoid humans for another day. Probably best during the pandemic, anyway. 

Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 

Words belong to their users.

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