Thursday, March 12, 2020

"Coronavirus" or "coronavirus"? CAPS or no caps?

There's been plenty of inconsistency regarding the naming of the virus currently assaulting the entire world. People who use the name "Wuhan" to describe the virus are being panned and canceled for supposed racism. The designation "2019-nCov" has been replaced by "COVID-19," and in the meantime, people are inconsistently referring to either the "coronavirus" or the "Coronavirus." While COVID-19 seems now to be, more or less, the official scientific designation for this virus, the layman's term "c/Coronavirus" still seems to be in flux. So: to capitalize, or not to capitalize? That is the question.

And because I don't want to keep you in suspense, let me say firmly: do not capitalize.

Here's why.

Unlike German, English doesn't capitalize its common nouns: it only capitalizes its proper nouns. Latin designations for living organisms are capitalized because they're proper nouns—specialized designations for specific organisms that belong to a larger genus, family, order, class, phylum, etc. A bacterium like Helicobacter pylori is a very particular type of bacterium. Notice that we don't capitalize "bacterium," which is a common noun, but we do capitalize Helicobacter pylori, also abbreviated as H. pylori. What's more, note that Latin proper nouns used taxonomically tend to be italicized. We don't italicize or capitalize "pathogen," nor do we italicize or capitalize "virus." Contrast that with Tyrannosaurus rex (or T. rex).

So what about "coronavirus"? Isn't that a specific type of virus? No, it isn't—and that's precisely why you should neither italicize nor capitalize the term. "Coronavirus" (capitalized here because it's at the head of the sentence!) refers to a group of viruses, all of which have crown-like structures that earn them the Latin designation corona, which means "crown" (think of a king's coronation). As many people have pointed out during the current outbreak, COVID-19 is one of many types of coronavirus. SARS, MERS, and the common cold are all examples of coronaviruses. The word "coronavirus," then, is merely a generic designation: a common noun, not a proper noun. It doesn't enjoy the same level of specificity as Helicobacter pylori, Escherichia coli, Campylobacter jejuni, or Staphylococcus aureus.

Before we leave this topic, there's one more thing that needs to be addressed: there are indeed italicized, capitalized virus names. Wikipedia has an enormous list of them here. Note, though, that this is consistent with what I wrote above: while "coronavirus" is a generic term and therefore a common noun, the viruses on the Wikipedia list are specific species of viruses, which is what gives them the right to be italicized and capitalized.

I hope that's clear. Don't capitalize "coronavirus," and don't italicize it, either, unless you're writing a sentence in which the word must be stressed: "I said coronavirus, dear, not 'Go bone a walrus.' Do check your hearing."

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