Most words have a variety of senses that can be added, removed, or altered over time. Understanding how they change across different contexts and time periods is crucial for revealing the role of language in social and cultural evolution. In this study we aimed to explore the collective changes in the mental lexicon as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. We performed a large-scale word association experiment in Rioplatense Spanish. The data were obtained in December 2020, and compared with responses previously obtained from the Small World of Words database (SWOW-RP, Cabana et al., 2023). Three different word-association measures detected changes in a word’s mental representation from Precovid to Covid. First, significantly more new associations appeared for a set of pandemic-related words. These new associations can be interpreted as incorporating new senses. For example, the word ‘isolated’ incorporated direct associations with ‘coronavirus’ and ‘quarantine’. Second, when analyzing the distribution of responses, we observed a greater Kullback-Leibler divergence (i.e., relative entropy) between the Precovid and Covid periods for pandemic words. Thus, some words (e.g., ‘protocol’, or ‘virtual’) changed their overall association patterns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, using semantic similarity analysis, we evaluated the changes between the Precovid and Covid periods for each cue word’s nearest neighbors and the changes in their similarity to certain word senses. We found a larger diachronic difference for pandemic cues where polysemic words like ‘immunity’ or ‘trial’ increased their similarity to sanitary/health words during the Covid period. We propose that this novel methodology can be expanded to other scenarios of fast diachronic semantic changes.

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Competing Interests: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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