The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

The strange lexicon of COVID-19

How we’ve created — and resurrected — words during a pandemic
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
YOON-JI KWEON/THE VARSITY
YOON-JI KWEON/THE VARSITY

Chances are, if you’ve scrolled through your Twitter timeline or tapped through Instagram stories any time over the past couple of months, you’ve encountered words and phrases that would have seemed absurd — if not altogether nonsensical — this time last year.

“Flatten the curve,” “covidiots,” “social distance,” and even “coronageddon,” are all terms that — casually yet suddenly — waltzed into our collective lexicons in recent months as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world. Every day, whether on social media or in person, new phrases are coined and picked up — some promise longevity; others fizzle out rather quickly. How and why does this happen?

Historically, major events have consistently proven to have a significant impact on language evolution. In a written interview with The Varsity, Rena Helms-Park, a professor of linguistics at UTSC and UTSG, explained that new phrases are born during “catastrophic or historically monumental events that befall humanity suddenly and often without preparedness.”

The Great Depression, the world wars, and even Brexit a couple of years ago all introduced new words into our lexicons. This was largely due to the fact that people were coming together in celebration or in protest of these events, effectively generating a positive environment for language growth.

“The colloquialisms that mushroom around the event form a lexical pool from which communities select items to find ways of bonding and creating modes of quick communications about urgent issues that have left the world in a state of flux,” Helms-Park explained.

This is why our current pandemic is so interesting: in contrast to past world- and word-changing events, the COVID-19 pandemic is centred on isolation. Instead of gathering together in solidarity, we are ordered to stay apart; many countries even go as far as to institute penalties and fines for breaking physical-distancing orders. And, as expected, the words that have sprung out of isolation have reflected this.

Think about how ‘social distancing’ — the pandemic word which Helms-Park finds most amusing — feels like a word that is omnipresent, yet somehow simultaneously debated and accepted. What does it mean to socially distance? Is it staying at home and not going out into the public, or is it staying two metres away from others?

According to the Center for Disease Control, the latter definition is the correct one, however this is not reflected in praxis, as many use the term to refer to the former. Many networks and institutions around the world, including The Varsity, have now chosen to replace the term with a new one — ‘physical distancing’ — which more accurately represents public health guidelines without implying the need to be disconnected from other people.

Had someone celebrated a potential “flattening of the curve” last year, you would have looked at them puzzlingly. With the exception of nursing and medical students, terms like ‘PPE,’ which stands for personal protective equipment; ‘epidemiology’; ‘respirators’; and even the technical terms for masks — ‘cloth,’ ‘surgical,’ or ‘N95’ — would not have garnered anyone’s interest.

Some of the phrases that have gained popularity are newly-made; others are remnants of previous pandemics or global events. Helms-Park explained that “phrases like ‘contact-tracing’… have been in general use prior to the COVID pandemic,” but that it is “entirely possible that their current use will increase their frequency in future discourse.”

The large pool of names with which we can refer to the virus is a great example of both newly-made words and ones taken from the annals of epidemiological history: the name ‘coronavirus’ has been in use since the 1960s, while ‘COVID’ and ‘COVID-19’ are newly made, generated from the letters in “coronavirus disease 2019.”

However, the naming of this virus has not gone without controversy: there are many racist instances of people — including the US president — who choose or have chosen to refer to COVID-19 as the “Chinese Flu” or “Kung Flu.”

There are a number of reasons as to why these geography-related titles are inappropriate. Along with the fact that many Asian Americans have rightly criticized these harmful titles, in 2015, the World Health Organization advised against naming pathogens after locations as this could have “unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities.”

Indeed, as a New York Times editorial explains, there is a long history of the mistaken, racist, and xenophobic belief that a particular group is responsible for a virus or more likely to spread it. The racialization of diseases only serves to fuel hatred and persecution toward minoritized communities, as we have seen with the Black Death and Jews; syphillis and the French, Italians, Russians, and others; and the Ebola virus and Black people.

Racist naming is not the only harmful language practice that has popped up during the pandemic. Many linguists and doctors have raised issues with the use of war-time words when referring to elements of the pandemic.

For instance, anyone who has to work in a public space is referred to as a ‘frontline worker,’ effectively comparing the pandemic to war, since ‘frontline’ is a military term that refers to positions closest to the enemy. Across the ocean in Europe, many politicians have been prophesying a ‘D-Day’ for the virus, where patients will overwhelm hospitals.

The problem is that in using militaristic analogies, there is no emphasis or pressure on the need to better structural and systemic flaws within health care systems — ones that the pandemic has exposed as always being present. A group of linguists in Spain considered this to be such a large issue that they created #ReframeCovid, a project through which they aim to find alternatives to this militaristic language. 

The Spanish linguists —  and,  hopefully,  you — will find it reassuring that no war-time words made it into the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) unscheduled dictionary update back in April, when it added 14 new words, all related to the pandemic.

The update — described by OED’s editorial manager as being “significant” and prompted by the “unprecedented times” — saw phrases like ‘self-quarantine,’ ‘shelter in place,’ and even ‘elbow bump’ make the cut, while more fun terms like ‘covidiots,’ — the word for people who break physical distancing orders — did not.

Though these more humorous terms may seem more novel than those that were officially recognized, these ‘neologisms’ — newly-coined words — are not groundbreaking. Helms-Park clarified, “Some of the processes underlying the creation of neologisms, as exemplified by the blends ‘covidiot,’ ‘quarantini,’ and ‘coronials,’ are eternal.”

When it comes to the longevity of these neologisms and phrases, Helms-Park explained, “The new meanings of metaphors such as ‘flatten the curve’ and ‘social distancing’ have potential to last, but their popularization via the COVID-19 pandemic per se could well be forgotten by future generations.”

Helms-Park offered the examples of “to send someone to Coventry” and “to go pear-shaped” — the first idiom meaning to ostracize someone, the second meaning to go wrong — as phrases that have lost popularity over the passing of the decades.

But if there’s one thing that is linguistically certain, it is that social media and technology play a significant role in the birth, popularity, and potential death of these terms. “The rapidity of the spread of these novel creations can be attributed to the rapidity of global communications — memes and buzzwords are the order of the day!”

And it is also on social media — and through general keyboard-use — that we have been able to define and lexicalize COVID-19 in a fun and light-hearted way: through emojis. A March study of 12 health-related emojis by Emojipedia found that Face with Medical Mask and Microbe were used the most when tweeting about COVID-19.

Interestingly, when the study expanded its emoji-parameters to include all emojis, not solely health-related ones, it found that Face with Tears of Joy was the most-used emoji, coming in significantly ahead of the second-place Rolling on the Floor Laughing — you may have spotted a pattern. 

Though we have been living through what feel like unprecedented times — the word ‘unprecedented’ has stirred much debate amongst linguists as well — we find ways of bringing light to our day-to-day lives. “Many neologisms,” Helms-Park wrote, “can also serve as much-needed humour during times of uncertainty and despair.”

So whether you are using emojis to express yourself or venting about the ‘covidiots’ next-door who threw a 30-person birthday party, take comfort in the knowledge that your language — and the language around you — is constantly evolving to best reflect your reality and quell your anxieties. Just maybe stay clear of the war-time analogies for now.