by Claire Niven>
Language helps us make sense of the world (and laugh at it when necessary) and during times of crisis we need both its logic and its laughter.
Think back to any period of disruption and you’ll find a previously unfamiliar word that seems to define it. The 2008 financial crisis gave us ‘subprime loans’ and Brexit has spawned words like ‘brexiteers’ and ‘remoaners’. But no crisis has hit us, linguistically, with as much impact as the coronavirus.
Since early 2020, our lives have been dominated by the global dialogue around Covid-19. News, social media and our daily conversations are flooded with vocabulary that we had barely heard of just eight short months ago.
The word Covid-19 entered our lexicon in February 2020 when the WHO announced the name of this new coronavirus: a combination of coronavirus (CO VI), disease (D) and the year of discovery (19). But how do you write it? COVID-19 or Covid-19? Well, the difference in usage is mainly regional. The WHO uses capitals as do most US style guides and dictionaries such as the Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook and Merriam-Webster. In the UK, the style preference is for lower case acronyms except when they are pronounced as letters, for example the BBC. So Covid-19 is used by the Oxford English dictionary and The Guardian style guide.
Some words we already knew. The first known use of ‘quarantine’ was in the 14th century when the Venetians isolated ships for 40 days to prevent the spread of the plague. The word comes from the Italian quaranta, meaning 40 days. Little did we know that it would become a common utterance and a potential requirement.
Other words previously only used by the scientific community suddenly entered our daily language. We turned into virologists overnight, dedicated to ‘flattening the curve’ and obsessing over graphs showing the ‘reproductive rate’. Like experts, we discuss ‘droplet transmission’ and the availability of ‘PPE’ over dinner.
We struggled to distinguish between an ‘epidemic’ (the widespread occurrence of a disease) and a ‘pandemic’ (an epidemic spread across several countries or continents). We had to figure out that ‘asymptomatic’ meant someone infected with a disease but not displaying any symptoms. Surely ‘virus clusters’ were something from a sci-fi film? Apparently not. They refer to people infected with the pathogens at the same time and the same place.
Some words already existed but now have a different, modern context. According to the Oxford English dictionary, ‘self-isolation’ was first recorded from 1834 but mainly applied to countries which chose to detach themselves politically from the rest of the world. Now it means detaching ourselves medically.
Some words such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘elbow bump’ have more recent origins, and they too have had a Covid-19 revamp. In the late 1950’s, social distancing suggested physical aloofness rather than polite apartness, while an elbow bump was a high five equivalent rather than a way to avoid a handshake.
In the 1970s, ‘lockdown’ referred to confining prisoners in their cells, which alas has a rather gloomy similarity to our 2020 version of restraint and isolation.
And the word ‘furlough’ did exist pre-coronavirus but was barely known until the UK Chancellor brought it to our attention. (The word furlough comes from the Dutch verlof or leave of absence.)
Like Brexit before it, the coronavirus also shifted the linguistic landscape by putting new and often funny words into our collective consciousness. There’s the ubiquitous ‘covidiot’—someone who blatantly ignores health warnings and hoards all the loo rolls.
Zoom has done for videoconferencing what Sellotape did for adhesive tape. The brand name is synonymous with video calls and is increasingly being used as a verb (a term known as anthimeria). ‘Zoombombing’ is our new national pastime, a ‘zoom room’ is a special decorated area designed to look good in video calls and ‘zumping’ is the act of dumping someone by zoom call.
At one time, WFH meant workforce management but now it's shorthand for 'working from home'. As we increasingly feel cut off from each other, language can give us a sense of connectedness in these times of socially distanced anxiety. Remember that next time you're dressed from the waist up, sipping your ‘quarantini’!
Keeping up with all these new words and meanings can be hard but clear and accurate information is vital when you are communicating in a crisis. The wording you use must be recognised by your audience, easily understood and explicit.