Names have power: the power to inspire, the power to simplify, the power to clarify, and the power to educate. Names also have the power to confuse.
Covid. COVID-19. Novel coronavirus. SARS-CoV-2. These are all medical and scientific names used to describe the current virus and its associated disease sweeping the globe. All are used interchangeably by experts, media, and government officials. While familiar, none of these names actually mean much, if anything, to the 7.8 billion people in the world who are not doctors or scientists.
The fact that these names are used so interchangeably leads to confusion today and may lead to even more confusion in the future. What if another “coronavirus” sweeps the globe in our lifetime? Will some people think they’re immune because of the confusing taxonomy? Would COVID-19 and COVID-33 sound different enough from each other? In fact, this is why COVID-19 wasn’t named after “SARS” (even though COVID-19 is also a severe acute respiratory syndrome)—to avoid confusion with the previous SARS outbreak.
COVID-19 and disease names like it lack clarity, which leads to their inconsistent use in communications. This not only potentially dilutes their impact, but also gives people an opportunity to simplify and/or coin their own new names for the disease. As we know, this led to racist epithets like China Virus and Kung-flu for COVID-19.
What can we do from a naming perspective to prevent confusion around the next virus that goes global? We were inspired by this quote we read:
“The longer it takes for a virus species to be named, the more likely it is that something else will stick as the common name–like how H1N1 is commonly referred to as swine flu. The natural human instinct to name things is a powerful thing–people even started naming the machinery being used to build an emergency 1,000-bed hospital for victims of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, after a livestream of the construction became a viral hit.”
We recognize this natural human instinct to name things from our years of naming experience. We asked ourselves: How can we name diseases in a simple, compelling way from the start?
Alternate Disease Naming Solutions
Rather than replacing the existing WHO taxonomy, we recommend an additional name be added to the current official virus and disease names. The current virus and disease naming system is a powerful tool for medical professionals and scientists. But, everyday people need something they can latch onto. Something the media can consistently use to clearly reinforce dangers and risks of a global pandemic.
Our global naming team developed a variety of new models for creating future disease names. Our goal was to create names that:
- Drive simplicity and clarity
- Are easier to understand for the everyday person, and therefore, more consistently used and shared
- More accurately paint a picture of the dangers and risks
- Easily differentiate one disease/pandemic from another
We don’t imagine the solution being to select just one of these new models to name all future diseases. Forcing consistency on an incredibly complex universe of diseases that display such vastly different symptoms may prove impossible. Or rather, such uniformity may lead to bland and confusing results like COVID. Instead, we envision naming each new disease by selecting the model that works best, based on the disease’s symptoms and other factors.
1. Use the existing system, just better
The first approach mostly adheres to the existing WHO criteria, but has the added filter of clarity and understanding. A few examples might be:
By simplifying to a single word part (corona), we reduce the clutter of adding another term (COVID) and increase memorability and consistent use.
Adding a familiar word like “disease” helps make the name easier to understand and use.
Using a related word (corona means crown), it adheres to the system, but is also more distinctive and memorable.
2. Use familiar words instead of medical speak
The goal for this approach is to simplify and reduce the number of words in the “system” (i.e., Corona, Covid, COVID-19, Coronavirus), while also using familiar words that fire the mind: “I know what this word is and it’s serious.”
Anchoring with the word flu makes it more relatable to the masses as a multi-symptom disease that should be taken seriously.
A name like this helps folks realize the global nature of this multi-symptom disease.
3. Defining symptom, or a series of defining symptoms
Here, we name to symptom to make the disease more tangible. Of course, for multi-symptom diseases this can be a challenge. But, this model has led to some memorable names in the past: Measles (many little spots) and Mumps (from swollen cheek lumps and the way they make people mumble: Mumble + Lumps = Mumps.)
Focusing in on the loss of lung capacity and modifying it with “crown” to make it more unique.
A serious and powerful image of a shock to the lungs that often leads to lung failure.
Weaving in the Latin word for “breathe” makes this name unique and positions it alongside other serious disease names with Latin roots.
Pronounced the same as “malice,” this name suggests the vicious way the disease attacks the body. It’s also from the Latin inanimalis meaning, “inanimate, unbreathing.”
4. Naming after the means of transmission
Perhaps the most famous example of a disease named after the means of transmission is Malaria which came from the Italian words mala aria, or “bad air.”
A more scientific sounding word that focuses on an airborne pathogen.
Combining two means of transmission: touch and cough.
A virus easily transmitted via surface touch.
5. Make it positive
We wanted to explore further. Perhaps the world is ready for a completely different approach. We imagined a future where diseases are named in a way that instills positivity and hope. We could create names that tell us how to beat the disease or paint a picture of how to keep us healthy and safe.
A rallying cry for us to rise up and come together as a global community to survive the pandemic.
The pandemic won’t be beaten in a day, month, and maybe even a year. Persistence reminds us to stay the course over the long run.
This one reminds the world that if we follow health guidelines carefully, we will eventually prevail against the global disease.
We must all do our part and work together around the world to rally our defense against a global threat.
One thing is certain: the current system that led to the name COVID-19 isn’t working as well as it could. While the WHO’s system creates consistent rules that govern disease naming, mostly to prevent negative outcomes, those same rules can lead to rather bland, uninspiring, and confusing names. There may not be one best model for naming diseases. But, if we reflect on the history of disease naming, we’re reminded of disease names that were catchier and more visceral, ultimately leading people take them more seriously. We hope these new models provide focus and consistency, while also allowing for more flexibility, intrigue, and memorability.
Aaron Hall is Group Director, Naming; Jason Hall is Creative Lead, Naming; Gabriele Zamora is Senior Strategist, Naming.