Pandemic popularizes a plethora of words, phrases

By Amanda M. Perez

Pandemic popularizes a plethora of words, phrases

By Amanda M. Perez
The global coronavirus has quickly transformed our language to include many words and phrases that were not part of our daily vocabulary, such as "social distancing" and "quarantine."

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our daily lives in more ways than we could have ever thought. 

Take for instance, the words that have been added to our vocabulary that we now use every day. Terms that were once foreign to us or hardly used, are now part of an essential set that have helped guide us through this global crisis.

“This has really shown that language matters, that language is powerful,” said Nicholas Pici, a lecturer in the University of Miami College of Arts and Science's Writing and Composition Program. “Today, our new COVID-related glossaries have forced us to learn and get crash courses in any number of unanticipated fields—from biology and immunology to statistical rhetoric, government operations, and civics.”

Pici pointed out some of the widely used vocabulary that is now trending in our daily language.

Medical terms

At the beginning of March, as the world began to learn more about the virus, we quickly had to familiarize ourselves with a range of words, including the actual term “COVID-19.” 

“If you remember back to when this all started, we were all trying to wrap our heads around the actual name of this virus. Most people were calling it the coronavirus at first, and then later had to learn the technical term and what it stood for. It was a lot of information at once,” explained Pici. “I imagine this bootcamp process of learning new lexical items became an added stressor during an already-stressful time. But language, once learned, can be a way to wrest control over chaotic situations—a potent feature of language-making, written and oral.”   

As the pandemic progressed, words and terms like “isolation,” “community spread,” “transmission,” “incubation period,” “fatality rate,” “asymptomatic,” “ventilator,” and “quarantine” were used frequently when referring to the virus.

“These words rotated into our daily linguistic regimen through legacy and social media platforms as well as community word of mouth. Their rapid, seamless adoption is rather astonishing and attests to the flexibility of human language in general and English specifically," Pici said. “Before the pandemic hit, a word like quarantine—with its exotic yet clinical phonemes evoking a sense of ‘foreign invader’ in both its syllables and etymological origins—seemed like something out of a horror movie. That’s a word you’re prepared to hear in a film like Contagion, but certainly not in our real-life social world. As the pandemic progressed, however, it began to lose its connotations of fear as more people—our neighbors and family members among them—have had to go into quarantine. It’s just become part of living life.”

Social and governmental terms 

While we navigated through this new pandemic world, other social and policy terms were being thrown at us as well. For instance, as COVID-19 rapidly spread, the term “social distance” was introduced to society to help stop the spread

“Before March, most people—outside of crisis-management or medical circles—had probably never heard that clanky-sounding idiom uttered out loud or in print,” Pici said. "Now, we hear and see it constantly in our verbal-visual landscapes and in various grammatical forms: We see it as a noun (social distance), in adjectival form that includes an adverbial (socially distant), as a verbal (to social distance). Its pervasiveness suggests both the play of language invention and the adaptive agility of English.”

Other phrases like “shutdown order,’ “state of emergency,” “contact tracing,” “essential businesses,” “flattening the curve,” as well as acronyms like "PPE" or  “personal protective equipment” also emerged into our list of vocabulary that helped us understand the complexity of the virus.

“We all know the definition of PPE now," Pici said. "More than that, we all own some of it. Before the pandemic, the average person wouldn’t have known what an N95 mask was, versus a surgical mask, versus a cloth mask—but now we use these items everywhere we go and reference them in our most mundane daily conversations. They became part of our vernacular to match our social reality.”

As the United States went into shutdown in early March, residents also began to continually get lessons in civics while tuning into the White House Daily Coronavirus Taskforce press briefings. Many had to quickly learn about the CARES Act and how it will affect them personally. We also learned that the United States had a Strategic National Stockpile (critical medical supplies).

“I’m assuming again that most American citizens were vaguely, if not at all aware our government kept such a stockpile,” said Pici. “This was interesting news to me anyway.”

Buzz words

Although many of the words we are now using are not new, others have been created as a by-product of the pandemic. For instance, the need to continue our connectivity virtually has created colloquial terms such as ‘‘zooming’’ (using the videoconferencing platform) or ‘‘zoombombing’’  (unwanted, disruptive intrusion that is generally caused by internet trolls and hackers crashing a virtual meeting held on Zoom).

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has even made the extraordinary decision to include COVID-19-related abbreviations, such as WFH (work from home). Nici explained that this reflects how fast language adapts to the situations around us. 

“English has proven to be a remarkably robust and adaptive language, from its Germanic origins and major Latinate expansion, to what we’ve borrowed from so many other world languages. When you combine that linguistic inclusiveness with the power of our digital media to spread memetic information, you get a potential to spread language that is rather unparalleled in history,” he said.

People have also had fun with words to create other meanings. Examples include “quaranteam,” which refers to a bubble of people who create their own tight-knit social circle, and “quarantini,” which is any cocktail you mix at home while in lockdown.

Pici notes that “language invention and creative tropes and figures deployed for comic relief can help people assert their resilience in dark times.”

Although it’s difficult to keep up with all of the trending words and phrases of the pandemic, Pici thinks it’s important for people to stay informed. 

Just to be able to survive in this new complex world, you always have to be updating your intellectual data bank,” he explained. “You always have to be willing to take on these new words. Because if you don’t understand them, then you could be part of a larger problem. Truth and knowledge are largely matters of trafficking and transmitting through language. If knowledge is power, as the saying goes, then language is power. And being aware of important and current language shifts can empower you to create positive change.”