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French Linguists Conclude The Debate Over The Gender Of The Word 'COVID-19'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

OK. Take yourself back to high school French class and the horror of the teacher calling on you. You know, you're sitting there. You have no idea whether a noun was feminine or masculine, if you should use la or le before the word. Now, sometimes there are clues to help you out. Many nouns ending in E-L are masculine, for example. But what if a noun ends in O-V-I-D-19, as in COVID-19? Well, it is the latest debate in France over the disease caused by the coronavirus. Is it le COVID-19 or la COVID-19?

(CROSSTALK)

CHANG: In other words, is COVID-19 masculine or feminine?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, (speaking French), we have an answer. The Academie Francaise issued a verdict this week. That would be the institution made up of linguists and other scholars who rule on how French is used in daily life. The members call themselves les immortels - the immortals. They wear ornate robes. They carry ceremonial swords, Ailsa. Yes, the whole thing is very French. Anyway, say la COVID, they say, meaning the disease is a feminine noun. The academy argues that because the acronym COVID stands for coronavirus disease and because disease is feminine, the acronym itself is feminine.

CHANG: Regardless of whether the virus is masculine or feminine, I think we all want to say au revoir to la COVID sooner rather than later. But how do you say social distancing in French, Mary Louise?

KELLY: Actually, the Academie Francaise has some guidance for that, too. They say (speaking French) - that that is completely gauche. But (speaking French) - well, that - that is parfait.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FRENCH INSIDERS' "SLUM GUITAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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