Was Covid-19, the new coronavirus tearing across the globe, masculine or feminine? Grammatically speaking, that is. In practical terms, should the French use a “le” or a “la” before the disease’s name?
Now, the group charged with preserving the French language has spoken. Covid-19, the Académie Française decided, is assuredly feminine, despite its increasingly common usage with the masculine article.
The group is a French institution, upholding the French language by protecting it against things like anglicisms or other perceived threats. In this case, their work relies in part on sorting out nouns by gender, a grammatical construction common in many Romance languages.
An example of the group’s work: Though many French people commonly use the phrase “le weekend” to refer to, well, the weekend, the Academie encourages the public to use “la fin de semaine,” literally meaning “the end of the week,” in an effort to keep English out of the language. It’s an act of preservation.
Made up of 40 select members, the Académie Française doesn’t exactly dictate the way the general public talks. But this month, they’ve put their foot down.
It’s not “le Covid-19,” they say. It’s “la Covid-19” — using a feminine article.
Are you wondering exactly how they came to this conclusion? Well, they broke it down like this.
When it comes to acronyms or abbreviations, the gender of the word is determined by whatever word constitutes the core of the abbreviation.
The example they used is the CIA — which takes the feminine article, la CIA.
The reason? In French, CIA stands for “Agence centrale de renseignement.” Because “agence” (agency, in English) has a feminine gender, the acronym of CIA is also feminine, hence “la CIA.”
Keeping with this theme of governmental agencies, another example is the FBI. In French, it’s “Bureau fédéral d’enquête” — and “bureau” is masculine. So, you’re supposed to say “le FBI” because “le” is masculine.
Here’s where Covid-19 comes in.
Covid stands for coronavirus disease. In French, according to the Academy, that translates into “maladie provoquée par le corona virus” — which in English means, “the disease caused by the coronavirus.”
“Maladie” is a feminine word so it uses the feminine article ‘la’: hence “la maladie.” Therefore, it should be “la Covid-19,” according to the Academy.
Whether or not the French will actually give up “le Covid” for “la Covid” remains to be seen. Either way, most people likely want to quickly bid “adieu” to the disease, no matter the article.