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The coronavirus is "novel", which made this adjective more common. I interpret it as a synonym of new, but is there any difference between the two?

AHD, for instance, does not make a great distinction:

novel 2 [adj]:

Strikingly new, unusual, or different.

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  • Well, you normally wouldn't say "I'd rather own a novel car than a used one".
    – Jason C
    Nov 9, 2020 at 7:11
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    In my field of software development, I've been encouraged not to rename module_x as new_module_x. The reason? At some point, new_module_x will be old, and the adjective confusing. Can you imagine if (God forbid) Covid-19 were still around in 2030? It wouldn't be new by then. But might still be a novel form of a respiratory syndrome.
    – rajah9
    Nov 9, 2020 at 12:52
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    "Strikingly new", is a good description IMO.
    – Neil
    Nov 9, 2020 at 15:22
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    Novel is generally a stronger term, implying something more than just a different age or purchase date. If you bought a new car that was exactly the same model as the old one, it would be "new" but not "novel": novel implies a clear difference.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 9, 2020 at 17:25
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    Novel - an item that new and has not been seen before. In the language of patent applications, an item must be "novel", i.e. not based upon a previous item. It must have something unique about it. New, may refer to a newer item or version, or type - i.e. a variant on an older or common version of a known object.
    – Greybeard
    Nov 9, 2020 at 19:30

7 Answers 7

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Yes, as Weather Vane says, 'novel virus' forces such a specifying definition on 'novel' that it is perhaps better regarded here as part of a fixed expression.

Indeed, CALD does list this usage but adds caveats:

novel [medical ... specialized]

used to refer to a new strain (= type) of a virus that has not been seen before:

  • The COVID-19 pathogen is a novel coronavirus.
  • A novel virus in swine is closely related to the human hepatitis E virus. [6 Oct 2020; Proc NAS]

However, 'novel' in this sense has been around since at least the 1970s, when the terms 'novel proteins' and 'novel compounds' were often met in scientific papers. Perhaps 'new to science' is a good synonym.

In general usage, the difference between these two fairly close synonyms is brought out by this statement from Vocabulary.com:

novel If something is so new and original that it's never been seen, used or even thought of before, call it novel.

There is an emphasis on originality, freshness, a new idea being involved. A 'novelty item' is (aimed at being) a surprising, inventive, almost ingenious knickknack.

Lexico at the moment (08 Nov 2020) carries only the generally upbeat sense (doubtless the default sense prior to the 'novel virus' usage):

novel [adjective] ...

New or unusual in an interesting way.

  • He hit on a novel idea to solve his financial problems.

Though 'novel virus' and 'novelty item' are terms evoking very different scenarios.

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    Interesting and confusing, novel can mean both "never thought before" and "newly discovered, but not necessarily newly brought into existance". I also found this definition of new in the Merriam-Webster: "(1): having been seen, used, or known for a short time : NOVEL rice was a new crop for the area" Nov 8, 2020 at 15:58
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    @MicheleDorigatti The distinction works the other way as well, the three millionth washing machine of a given model to leave the factory is certainly new but it is in no way novel.
    – BoldBen
    Nov 9, 2020 at 8:41
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A novel virus is not necessarily new. Wikipedia says

A novel virus is a virus that has not previously been recorded. It can be a virus that is isolated from its natural reservoir or isolated as the result of spread to an animal or human host where the virus had not been identified before. It can be an emergent virus, one that represents a new virus, but it can also be an extant virus that has not been previously identified.


Merriam-Webster says

novel

1 b not previously identified
transmission of a novel coronavirus, a novel genetic mutation

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Here is a new car

enter image description here

Here is a novel car

enter image description here

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  • One picture .... (although Top Gear have, I think, pre-empted this design). Nov 9, 2020 at 19:31
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Also worth mentioning that "novel" is a jargon term of patent law with a particular legal weight. Many claims of "novel" are made in scientific papers with an eye to patent law. Which has meant that "novel" has become the common term in science for a never-seen-before discovery or invention, as opposed to the use of a different adjective with a similar meaning, such as "new".

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  • Very true, +1. It is very common in scientific literature to read papers bringing up unprecedented work like new discoveries and solutions, and these will be rightfully tagged as novel.
    – edmz
    Nov 9, 2020 at 10:26
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In French, such a difference between "nouveau / nouvelle" (novel ?) and "neuf / neuve" (new) may exist.

As to follow the washing machine example given by @BoldBen: "the three millionth [one] of a given model to leave the factory is certainly new", hence translates as "une machine [à laver] neuve" (as opposed to second-hand) and not "une nouvelle machine". I checked the etymology of "novel", and indeed it comes from French, so it may be a clue.

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  • Is there any etymological relation between neuf (9) and neuf (new)? Nov 10, 2020 at 17:03
  • I could not find any, but I'd gladly let somebody more knowledgeable answer this. Nov 12, 2020 at 15:04
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New is more popular, Novel is always about something that you weren't expecting, or something totally new.. Something not so common, it's about the intensity

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    May 17 at 22:05
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"There are many like it but this one is mine"

What is new (my new rifle) is not necessarily novel. There are many like it.

1
  • Why the downvote?
    – Tony Ennis
    Nov 10, 2020 at 22:08

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