From company policy to Covid: the changing meaning of 'shedding'

Lamentably, shedding a virus doesn’t mean we get rid of it – but it’s a different story when employers shed staff

Have you checked whether you’re shedding lately? It was recently reported that “viral shedding” of Sars-CoV-2 is strongest in the afternoon. Pleasingly, the OED notes that “shedding” can also mean “a collection of sheds”, such as David Cameron might compose his memoirs in – but that is not the sense we want right now.

Whereas your garden-variety shed is an old English variant of the word “shade”, the verb “to shed” derives from Old English scēadan, from an old Germanic root meaning “to divide or separate”. An early sense in English was agricultural, as farmers would (and might still do) speak of shedding sheep into separate pens, or shedding calves from cows. From there “shed” acquires other senses, of parting hair, pouring forth (as roach fishes do their spawn, observed a 16th-century commentator), spilling liquid (or shedding blood, or tears), or emanating sound, heat, or ardent photons – “shed the light of love”, as Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” has it.

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