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The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced us to a whole lot of new words, and has got the media using familiar words in unfamiliar ways. In such a time of crisis, it’s all the more vital that language is used accurately and informatively. For example, it’s wrong to call COVID-19 a virus. It is a disease caused by the virus SARS-COV-2, which is a member of the coronavirus family.

We hear the words quarantine and isolation being used interchangeably, but some medical authorities make a distinction between them. In this view, isolation means separating the infected from the healthy, and quarantine means removing the healthy from the general public to monitor the development of symptoms. It’s important to be aware of this difference, especially when being told about different public health approaches around the world.

And, finally, exponential, especially as applied to growth. This doesn’t just mean increasing very quickly. The term has a precise mathematical application whereby the rate of increase keeps growing, resulting in a steepling curve rather than, say, a steadily rising line (which would be linear growth). ‘Flattening the curve’ has become a mantra, but numbers, as we all know, can be manipulated, so we need to understand something about the calculations behind the multi-coloured graphs that are appearing at exponentially increasing rates on our screens.

Adam Smith

This item is based on an ABC Language report by Tiger Webb. These reports contribute to the ABC Style Guide, which is available here: http://about.abc.net.au/abc-editorial/the-abc-style-guide/.