Viral gender dispute

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Kim Willsher, "'La Covid': coronavirus acronym is feminine, Académie Française says", The Guardian 5/13/2020 ("Many in France have been referring to "le Covid" but guardians of French language rule otherwise"):

The Académie Française, guardian of the French language, has said a big non to le covid. Not to the actual disease, but to the use of the masculine definitive [sic] article "le".

While many in France have been referring to "le Covid", the so-called "Immortals" who make up the academy have ruled otherwise. Covid, they insist, is most definitely feminine.

"Covid is the acronym for coronavirus disease and acronyms have the genus of the name that forms the core of the phrase of which they are an abbreviation," the academy ruled in a statement on its website under the heading "Say, don't say", aimed at stopping the French language being infected with Anglicisms.

The ruling is here — "Le covid 19 ou La covid 19":

Covid est l'acronyme de corona virus disease, et les sigles et acronymes ont le genre du nom qui constitue le noyau du syntagme dont ils sont une abréviation. On dit ainsi la S.N.C.F. (Société nationale des chemins de fer) parce que le noyau de ce groupe, société, est un nom féminin, mais le C.I.O. (Comité international olympique), parce que le noyau, comité, est un nom masculin. Quand ce syntagme est composé de mots étrangers, le même principe s'applique. On distingue ainsi le FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation, « Bureau fédéral d'enquête », de la CIA, Central Intelligence Agency, « Agence centrale de renseignement », puisque dans un cas on traduit le mot noyau par un nom masculin, bureau, et dans l'autre, par un nom féminin, agence. Corona virus disease – notons que l'on aurait pu préférer au nom anglais disease le nom latin morbus, de même sens et plus universel – signifie « maladie provoquée par le corona virus ("virus en forme de couronne") ». On devrait donc dire la covid 19, puisque le noyau est un équivalent du nom français féminin maladie. Pourquoi alors l'emploi si fréquent du masculin le covid 19 ? Parce que, avant que cet acronyme ne se répande, on a surtout parlé du corona virus, groupe qui doit son genre, en raison des principes exposés plus haut, au nom masculin virus. Ensuite, par métonymie, on a donné à la maladie le genre de l'agent pathogène qui la provoque. Il n'en reste pas moins que l'emploi du féminin serait préférable et qu'il n'est peut-être pas trop tard pour redonner à cet acronyme le genre qui devrait être le sien.

Bob Ladd, who sent in the link, added:

In general, my impression is that both Italian and French operate on a kind of working assumption that the gender of a word borrowed from English should be the same as the gender of the native word it corresponds to (so in this case, "la maladie" for "disease") – the pronouncement from the Académie Française is explicit that this is what they're basing their recommendation on. But I also have the impression that acronyms (in the strict sense of pronounceable sequences of initials) are often treated as masculine in both languages. This is what gives rise to the usage that the Académie Française is objecting to.

A quick scan of easily accessible stuff on the web in Italian just now suggests that usage is split between masculine and feminine, with official stuff apparently leaning feminine and more popular stuff (including non-tabloid journalism) tending masculine. But a LOT of stuff in Italian refers to "coronavirus" rather than "covid", and "virus" (and therefore "coronavirus") is uncontroversially masculine.

I don't know what other European languages with grammatical gender are doing, but I expect the Italian solution (just call it "coronavirus" and avoid the question) is widespread.

By the way, the Guardian's "definitive article" malapropism is presumably one of those errors where you start to type a word, and when your attention shifts to the next word, your fingers (and the associated brain circuits) actually produce something different. The nickname "Grauniad" has been undeserved for some time, but it's nice to see tradition upheld.

The obligatory screenshot:



44 Comments

  1. Bob Ladd said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 5:20 am

    Huh. I didn't even notice "definitive article"!

  2. Daniele A. Gewurz said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 5:51 am

    Very interesting!

    As an Italian, while the managing of genders of foreign acronyms and words is a mess (_il plumcake_, but mostly _la cheesecake_), I wouldn't say that there is a trend to use acronyms as masculine words. Even limiting to recent ones, we have _la SARS_ (and _sindrome_ is feminine, but AIDS is masculine…), _la RAM_ (_memoria_ being feminine) and so on, not to mention _la CIA_ (and other "agencies" such as AIEA), as in French, _la NATO_, _l(a)'ONU_ etc., and even _la GIF_ (perhaps implying _immagine_?).

  3. Laura Morland said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 7:05 am

    I think the 'Immortals' are fighting an uphill battle. Reporting in from Paris, in the inbox just two messages above yours was a link to this article:

    Pourquoi l'essai Discovery sur le Covid-19 est-il en train de patiner ?

    Contrairement à ce qu'avait annoncé Emmanuel Macron, aucun résultat de l'essai franco-européen Discovery ne sera annoncé ce jeudi 14 mai. Les experts indépendants ont estimé que trop peu de patients y étaient inclus à ce stade. Si la France est en pointe sur cette étude, les autres pays européens n'ont pas suivi pour l'instant.

    For you francophones, there's a cute quote involving inside-out socks in the following paragraph:

    C'est une nouvelle version de la célèbre formule du verre à moitié vide ou à moitié plein. « On peut voir, comme disait ma grand-mère, la chaussette à l'envers ou la chaussette à l'endroit. » C'est avec cette formule, plutôt rafraîchissante, que la professeure Florence Ader évoquait….

    https://www.la-croix.com/France/Pourquoi-lessai-Discovery-Covid-19-est-train-patiner-2020-05-14-1201094225

  4. DJL said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 8:13 am

    I think the situation in Spanish is similar to that of Italian in that the word 'coronavirus' is much more frequent than 'covid'. The Spanish Real Academia has stated that both the masculine and feminine forms are correct for 'covid', though the masculine appears to be more common:

    https://www.rae.es/noticias/crisis-del-covid-19-sobre-la-escritura-de-coronavirus

    El País newspaper seems to accept either:

    https://elpais.com/elpais/2020/04/07/album/1586278782_442756.html

    https://elpais.com/elpais/2020/04/24/opinion/1587729909_036640.html

    Don't think the Italian Accademia della Crusca has said anything yet about the genre of 'covid' in the same way they recommended to use Brexit in the feminine even though they accepted the masculine form was common enough and perfectly fine, but I suspect something along these lines would be the case for 'covid' too.

    https://accademiadellacrusca.it/it/consulenza/il-genere-di-brexit/1097

    For what is worth, as an Italian and Spanish speaker I prefer the masculine for both Brexit and Covid.

  5. DaveK said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 10:28 am

    Interestingly, I see "coronavirus" much more than "covid" in English too. I'm a bit surprised people wouldn't gravitate toward the shorter word.

  6. Daniele A. Gewurz said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 10:44 am

    @DJL: Funny, as an Italian I had never heard "Brexit" used as a masculine noun, and was even mildly amused in hearing that German uses it as masculine (but of course _Ausgang_ is masculine).

  7. JJM said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 10:52 am

    One thing I seem to be seeing in some Romance languages is feminine Covid-19 when the pandemic itself is specifically implied (the word for "pandemic" being feminine) but masculine Covid-19 when the issue is more general in nature and refers to the situation, the politics, the news and everything about the Coronavirus.

  8. Adrian Bailey said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 10:53 am

    Quite a badly edited article, n'est-ce pas? Apart from the "definitive article" error, there's also "genus" instead of gender, and an unexplained "syntagm" (which I will file in my list of useful Scrabble words). Then in the final paragraph it would've been helpful to give the meanings of "drive" and "gestes barrières".

  9. Daniel Barkalow said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 11:26 am

    There's the annoying technicality that "COVID-19" is the syndrome caused by the virus (including, for example, auto-immune effects people get after their immune system controls the virus), not the virus itself. The virus itself has an awkward name with "SARS" in it, despite COVID-19 not being nearly so severe or acute as SARS was, so people usually just say "coronavirus" for it, unless they're speaking to a technical audience. A certain amount of the split between "COVID-19" and "coronavirus" is therefore people who know the difference using the technically-correct one for the situation.

  10. Robert Coren said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 11:40 am

    I wonder how the rule about the gender of a borrowed expression applies to words borrowed into French from, say, German (assuming there are such), where the gender of the "noyau" is as likely as not to be different in the two languages.

  11. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 12:26 pm

    "In general, my impression is that both Italian and French operate on a kind of working assumption that the gender of a word borrowed from English should be the same as the gender of the native word it corresponds to"

    That only operates when there is such a word, and if there were, then there would be no need to borrow the word to begin with! As far as I'm aware, The Europeans tend to borrow words in the masculine. Weekend, jeep, gang, job are all masculine in Europe, but the last three are feminine in Quebec (and gang as a result as entered the select group of words with completely different meanings depending on gender). "Fin de semaine", the equivalent to weekend, is feminine.

    The problem here is really that "covid" is being borrowed as a novel word with no prior connection to the word "disease" or its equivalent: no one ever used "maladie à coronavirus", which would indeed trigger a feninine, as it did with "Syndrome" in SRAS. It was always "Coronavirus" and in every sensible speaker, "Covid" is a replacement for "coronavirus", AND a borrowed English word.

  12. cliff arroyo said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 1:12 pm

    "only operates when there is such a word, and if there were, then there would be no need to borrow the word to begin with! "

    Many times European languages borrow English words for various reasons when there are already native words…

    I just was looking at an Italian newspaper which mentioned a 'madre single' Italian didn't have a word for unmarried before English came long? Who knew? (one example of many).

  13. Frank said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 2:03 pm

    I wonder by which name this disease will be known to history. COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 are terms of art that surely cannot survive as popular names after the pandemic ceases to dominate the news. Perhaps the identification of the original natural reservoir will provide a popular name?

  14. Alexander said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 2:22 pm

    @Frank

    I agree about SARS-CoV-2. Covid-19, or just Covid, which I hear more frequently now, don't seem much worse in that regard than HIV or AIDS, which haven't been replaced.

  15. F said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 2:42 pm

    This is very easy in Russian — the gender of a borrowing is feminine when it ends in 'a', masculine when it ends in a consonant. There is some ambiguity when it ends in another vowel (mostly neuter for inanimate things and some semantically relevant gender for animate ones).

  16. Michael Watts said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 2:50 pm

    My thinking runs along the same lines Jean-Sébastien Girard's.

    I was extremely surprised to see this:

    my impression is that both Italian and French operate on a kind of working assumption that the gender of a word borrowed from English should be the same as the gender of the native word it corresponds to […]

    A quick scan of easily accessible stuff on the web in Italian just now suggests that usage is split between masculine and feminine, with official stuff apparently leaning feminine and more popular stuff (including non-tabloid journalism) tending masculine. But a LOT of stuff in Italian refers to "coronavirus" rather than "covid", and "virus" (and therefore "coronavirus") is uncontroversially masculine.

    I assumed Bob Ladd had accidentally said the opposite of what he meant at some point, and the intended meaning was unrecoverable. It would never have occurred to me that "covid" might be viewed as representing some other noun than "coronavirus". That certainly doesn't reflect popular English usage any better than it reflects popular French or Italian usage.

    Apparently someone wants to draw a distinction between symptomatic infection ("covid") and asymptomatic infection ("coronavirus"), as was done with AIDS/HIV. But I don't think the general run of people maintain much of a conceptual distinction between a disease and the germ that is the disease, and in this case I tend to agree that they're right not to draw a distinction. I don't think anything would be lost if e.g. the Human Immunodeficiency Virus was just named "AIDS" or "AIDS virus".

  17. Not a naive speaker said,

    May 14, 2020 @ 3:04 pm

    When looking up Virus at duden.de I was greeted with the question "Cookie, der oder das".
    The Duden team (the eminent authority on usage of German) says "Virus, das oder der". In my sprachgefühl Virus is masculine, the neuter variant is scientific/smartass.

  18. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 12:39 am

    Hm. I had to think long and hard what gender "Covid-19" is in Swedish, because it rarely occurs in constructions where you can tell (it doesn't take an article for a start). But I apparently treat it as neuter – Covid-19 är dödligt "Covid-19 is deadly" sounds more natural than Covid-19 är dödlig. (No guarantee other speakers do the same, of course.)

    "Coronavirus" is obviously neuter, because "virus" is.

    As for what the disease will be popularly known as to the future, I might guess at "corona". It's shorter than "coronavirus" and dodges the pedantic objection; and sounds more natural than "Covid".

  19. cliff arroyo said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 1:12 am

    Some quick googling for Polish
    nb. the masculine gender in Polish is breaking up into two genders, animate and inanimate, a number of words fall into either category though one is usually more common

    koronawirus – animate (inanimate is possible but seems to be less common) It's also far more used in media than covid-19.

    covid – more ambiguous, but probably more inanimate

  20. Michael Watts said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 3:36 am

    nb. the masculine gender in Polish is breaking up into two genders, animate and inanimate

    I am interested in the degree to which we say this is happening / has happened in English. I don't mean so much that the masculine gender (already vestigial) is breaking up. There is a sex-based gender system reflected mostly in the pronouns, and there are masculine/feminine/neuter pronouns, but I perceive that often a gender distinction is drawn between people and nonpeople. Most obviously, these two categories obligatorily take different relativizers (who and which), but the pronouns can be interpreted according to this distinction too, with he/she as people and it as a nonperson. (On this analysis, pets would merit the use of a person pronoun through a sort of honorary grant of personhood.) I remember reading about a woman who showed up in court for assault — she had physically attacked another woman after repeated requests to stop referring to her [the assaulter's] new baby as "it" were ignored. I strongly suspect that the nonperson sense of "it" contributed to her fury.

  21. Bob Ladd said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 10:10 am

    @Jean-Sébastien Girard,Cliff Arroyo:
    Already having a word for something is certainly not a reason for Italian not to borrow an English word. See for example
    https://nuovoeutile.it/300-parole-da-dire-in-italiano/.
    It just sounds trendier in English.

  22. cliff arroyo said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 11:09 am

    "It just sounds trendier in English"

    Certainly more affected… and odd… given the semantic changes that occur along the way.
    At times it seems like most European languages have simply given up trying to create new words and have outsourced vocabulary creation to English…

  23. Michael Watts said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 12:43 pm

    For "madre single", I'd consider the possibility that the native words are too informative and the writer would prefer to be obscure. I can imagine that the options are something like [foreign word], "slut", "divorcée", and "widow".

    I'd also consider that "madre single" might be used as a term of art to directly translate the Americanism "single mother".

  24. Bob Ladd said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 1:16 pm

    @Michael Watts: probably not (or not only) a term of art. "Single" is widely used in present-day Italian to mean "unmarried", but with all the modern associations. If anything, the term of art is "madre sola" (also in Spanish, to judge from what happens when I google "madre sola"). Undoubtedly there are different associations with native words and English borrowings, but in general I don't think it's a question of avoiding being too informative – it's more like an attempt to be cool. ("Madre single" certainly sounds more glamorous than "madre sola".)

  25. DJL said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 2:00 pm

    @Bob Ladd: this is a bit by the by, but for me the term of art in Italian would be "madre singola", not "madre sola" (and "madre soltera" in Spanish).

  26. cliff arroyo said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 3:40 pm

    ""Madre single" certainly sounds more glamorous than "madre sola""

    Maybe for Italians but the proliferation of weird english borrowings just dilutes my enthusiasm for the language… which I want to like but… every "madre single" or "lo spread" or "il lockdown" lets a little more air out of the balloon… and I'm sure Italians will be alarmed by that (sarcasm alert)

  27. Michael Watts said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 3:56 pm

    Undoubtedly there are different associations with native words and English borrowings, but in general I don't think it's a question of avoiding being too informative – it's more like an attempt to be cool.

    I find this kind of thing weird. It definitely happens, though.

    A friend of mine is named 思佳 sījiā and uses the nickname 4+ (= 四加 sìjiā). I once read this as "four plus" and then watched her immediately tell her boyfriend to read the nickname as "four plus" rather than sijia.

    I tend to take the opposite view of things; I may use Latin nicknames in online contexts, but I don't like to use living languages, on the theory that I'll probably mess something up.

  28. Bob Ladd said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 4:35 pm

    @DJL: Google disagrees with you:
    "le madri singole" 666 hits
    "le madri sole" 92,000 hits
    "le madri single" 205,000 hits
    If you search for "le madri singole" Google asks 'Did you mean "le madri single".
    Searching in the plural with the definite article is a way to avoid mixing Spanish results in with Italian.

  29. Bob Ladd said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 4:43 pm

    @Cliff Arroyo
    "At times it seems like most European languages have simply given up trying to create new words and have outsourced vocabulary creation to English…"

    Yes indeed (need a laughing emoji here). But I think the Italians are among the most enthusiastic outsourcers.

  30. Matteo said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 5:03 pm

    in italian "single" means "not married" (in italian: "nubile" or "non sposata" – but may have some kind of romantic relationship with someone)
    while "sola" means alone (i.e. no romantic relationship.)

    In spoken italian "donna nubile" sounds old-fashioned,
    "donna non sposata" sounds sexist.

    I think that the gender of a foreign word (coming from a genderless language) in italian depends on

    – the corrisponding (existing) italian word
    il coach = l'allenatore (male)

    – its hyperonym
    the cheescake in italian is a cake ("la torta" –> female)
    but plumcake usually refers in Italy to a small prepackaged snack ("il dolcetto" –> male)

    – the sound (if it sounds male or female in italian)
    la tempura –> female
    il kimono –> male

  31. Matteo said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 5:12 pm

    …kimono may depend also on its hyperonym ("il vestito" -> male)

  32. DJL said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 5:35 pm

    @Bob Ladd:
    "Searching in the plural with the definite article is a way to avoid mixing Spanish results in with Italian."

    Yes, yes, I know. But that's only an issue with 'sola' here anyway, not with 'singola', which of course is not a Spanish word.

    And in fact a search of 'madre singola' returns 85,000 results (let's not add 'la' so we miss all those 'una madre singola', 'di madre singola', 'della madre singola', ecc.).

    I must admit that I hadn't actually heard/read 'madre sola' used in that way before, certainly not in my circle of friends and family, but I have heard both 'madre singola' and 'madre single' in such contexts numerous times, and I would still argue that 'madre singola' is the term of the art in the non-borrowed case.

  33. Chris Button said,

    May 15, 2020 @ 10:33 pm

    In English, the debate is should it be Covid or COVID.

    The argument for the former can fit in two categories:

    1. Use lower case for acronyms that are pronounced as words rather than single letters (e.g. Aids and Covid)
    2. Use lower case for acronyms whose letters represent parts of words rather than the first letters (e.g., AIDS and Covid)

    The argument for the latter is that it is an acronym so should be in caps.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 4:02 am

    Much as I loathe camel-case, it should clearly be "CoViD", I am truly sorry to say.

  35. Chris Button said,

    May 16, 2020 @ 9:51 am

    I'd reserve that for when function words (usually ignored) are included in the acronym. So IoT (internet of things) to distinguish it from IT.

  36. Peter Taylor said,

    May 17, 2020 @ 3:04 am

    Chris, isn't AIDS a bad example for the second argument? Or does the phrasing of "parts of words" need to be tightened up? I would certainly see the ID as representing two parts of the single word immunodeficiency.

  37. Philip Taylor said,

    May 17, 2020 @ 7:21 am

    Well, there is precedent for camel-casing acronyms, Chris (or, as I now learn I should have termed it, Pascal-casing) :

    The Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (CoCom) was established by the Western Bloc in the first five years after the end of World War II, during the Cold War, to put an embargo on Comecon countries. CoCom ceased to function on March 31, 1994, and the then-current control list of embargoed goods was retained by the member nations until the successor, the Wassenaar Arrangement, was established.

    from Wikipedia.

  38. John Rohsenow said,

    May 19, 2020 @ 4:03 pm

    A quick informal survey of my friends tells me that in Quebec they are
    saying LA (before the AF ruling), and in Switzerland it's LE.

  39. Viseguy said,

    May 19, 2020 @ 11:48 pm

    As for COVID vs. Covid, I believe that some organs, e.g. the NY Times, use four letters as an upper limit for block-capping acronyms: "NATO", but "Covid". (Abbreviations not pronounceable as words, like ASPCA, are not acronyms, right?) However, a quick Google search turned up a NYT piece from 1964 with "SEATO", so it seems that at some point the rule changed. It's arbitrary and/or a matter of typographic aesthetics, depending on who you talk to. ("CoViD", though logical, is an eyesore, and hard to type or handwrite. If it's not extinct already, natural selection should quickly see to its demise.)

  40. cliff arroyo said,

    May 20, 2020 @ 1:30 am

    I noticed (more or less by accident) that in Cuban media it's "la covid" and in Spanish media it's "el covid". I don't know about other Spanish speaking countries.

  41. DJL said,

    May 20, 2020 @ 4:30 am

    @cliff arroyo: not really, and see one of my comments above (as I noted earlier, El País newspaper in Spain uses both 'la covid' and 'el covid').

  42. John Rohsenow said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 12:49 pm

    A native speaking French prof. of linguistics at the Univ. of Paris writes:
    So we have:
    (1) "En raison de l'épidémie de Covid-19… » with a « zero » article, which I heard on the radio and
    also
    (2) "l'épidémie du Covid-19", du = de+le (for me)
    and (3)" l'épidémie de la Covid-19" (fo those who use the femine 5) article
    I heard one guy say: la crise de la Covid 19 and later on always say le Covid 19
    Hence it is clear that all that depend on the head noun , which maybe covert.

  43. Robert Chirila said,

    May 24, 2020 @ 3:59 pm

    Was curious to see what people might be saying in Quebec (where I haven't lived in 8 years). I read a while back that some loanwords ending in a consonant sound are analyzed as feminine in Quebec (une job, la gang) when they are masculine elsewhere, though I can't find the reference now. Looks like they also have defaulted to the masculine: "maudit covid" gets 5240 ghits where "maudite covid" only gets 229. The Office québécoise de la langue française also recommends "la COVID," for what it's worth.

  44. Coronavirus slang and the rapid evolution of English | The Toilet Paper Times said,

    May 25, 2020 @ 1:33 am

    […] "Viral gender dispute" (5/14/20) […]

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