How COVID-19 Has Changed Language

Diseases leave traces on language, just as they do on the body. Scurvy — the name given in the 16th century to a debilitating ailment caused by lack of vitamin C — was quickly pressed into service as an adjective meaning “worthless.” There was no such thing as an iron lung — the colloquial term for a mechanical respirator — before the polio epidemics of the 20th century. The first use of Patient Zero — the single individual posited as the carrier of a disease in an area previously free of it— dates from 1987 and the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

COVID-19, our latest pandemic, is already changing the way we speak and write. We’re coining new words, some playful (quarantini, corn-teen), some thoughtful (caremongering, PanPal). And we’ve changed the meanings of older terms that have been around for a long time with different senses.

Here are some of the old words we’re looking at in new ways:

Canceled. Remember, way back in 2019, when canceling meant social shaming and shunning? When if comedians, actors, or athletes did something objectionable, they were canceled? When a major dictionary named cancel culture its word of the year? Post-COVID, canceled has reverted to its original, literal meaning: called off, ended. And it’s everywhere. The Tokyo Olympics? Canceled. The rest of the school year? Canceled. Your restaurant plans for the foreseeable future? Very, very canceled.

Cocooning. In 1981, the American marketing consultant Faith Popcorn (née Plotkin) coined the term cocooning to describe a trend toward “spending leisure time at home in preference to going out.” Sure enough, during the following decades Martha Stewart built an empire, scented candles were omnipresent, and gated communities flourished. All very cozy, very hygge. In 2020, cocooning has a strict new significance: In Ireland, it’s a nationwide directive advising people over 70 and those “extremely medically vulnerable” to stay indoors and minimize all contact with other members of their households.

Cocooning pre-COVID.

Disruption. For a decade or more in Silicon Valley and beyond, disruption was the goal, and it was good. Uber disrupted the taxi industry, Airbnb disrupted hotels, and investors blessed them. The technology column in the New York Times was called “Disruptions”; the big conference held by TechCrunch was called Disrupt. And now? Disruption doesn’t look quite so desirable when it’s your life that’s been turned upside down: when schools are closed, jobs are lost, and the customary comforts of community are off limits. We’re viewing disruption in its original sense, from Latin disrumpere: literally “breaking apart.” Look up synonyms for disruption, and you’ll find “disorder,” “confusion,” and “tumult.” Not so investor-friendly now, is it?

Essential. Before the pandemic, did you think of grocery clerks, hospital janitors, and garbage collectors as essential workers? You probably do now. While the Department of Homeland Security definition of essential worker is vague and merely advisory (people who “protect their communities, while ensuring continuity of functions critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security”), it encompasses many low-paying jobs formerly regarded as low-skilled and now as truly vital. We’re rethinking essential services too: guns? cannabis? liquor? craft stores? Instacart shoppers? As for essentials — products we can’t live without — in the past they might have included a $55 set of potholders or $200 ballet flats. Now our must-haves are toilet paper and comfy sweatpants.

“Books Are Essential”: ad for Little, Brown and Company in New York Times, April 3, 2020

Shelter in place. In many areas, people have been asked to shelter in place: to remain at home (rather than go to a designated safe spot). The term originated toward the end of the Cold War amid visions of nuclear fallout; it was later pressed into service for weather emergencies and active-shooter situations. Today’s sheltering in place means staying at home or — to use the awkward New York State acronym — going on PAUSE: “Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone.”

Diagram for a Cold War-era fallout shelter (via Time magazine)

Social distance. To slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, we’ve been advised to maintain social distance of at least six feet (two meters) and to limit gatherings of large groups of people. The usage is new, but social distance has been in the vocabulary of sociology and anthropology since the 1920s, when Robert E. Park defined it as “the measure of nearness or intimacy that an individual or group feels towards another individual or group in a social network or the level of trust one group has for another.” In practice, the traditional definition of social distance encompasses social class, race, ethnicity, and gender. The current definition is really a matter of physical distance within social settings.

There’s been a turn away from “social distancing” in favor of “physical distancing.” (Photo: Oakland, California)

Viral. “Long waiting lists developed for use of the Macintoshes,” PC Magazine reported in a September 1989 issue. “It’s viral marketing. You get one or two in and they spread throughout the company.” It was the first documented appearance in print of viral in a positive sense, and it heralded a new viral era. Memes, videos, petitions, brands, and tweets could all, if they were fortunate, be said to “go viral.” It’s hard to encounter that usage now without thinking of its earlier associations. Virus is Latin for “poisonous secretion”; its medical sense goes back to at least the 18th century: “venereal virus” and “cowpox virus” were among the early usages. “Computer virus” — a malicious, self-propagating piece of code — has been in our vocabulary since the early 1970s.

Zoomer. Not very long ago, a Zoomer was a member of Generation Z: someone born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s. Now a Zoomer is someone who’s videoconferencing from home for work meetings, social gatherings, exercise, or vocalizing. Although there are multiple videoconferencing platforms, Zoom — a (mostly) free platform that has marketed itself aggressively since its 2013 launch — has become the go-to generic term for meeting-while-quarantined. And Zoombombing — crashing a private chat to post abusive or racist content — is a growing plague.

Writer, name developer, brand consultant, idea-ist. Find me on Twitter and Instagram (@fritinancy) and in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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