The language of a pandemic

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One of the interesting aspects of an event that affects us all globally is the new set of words it introduces to our international language. Take, for instance, the whole plethora of new vocabulary we have started using as a consequence of the global pandemic.

New pandemic vocabulary
Until January this year, the word ‘lockdown,’ used first when the Chinese government imposed stringent restrictions in Wuhan, was virtually unknown to us here in Europe. Add to that the other phrases that have come into common use since the Corona virus (mostly now referred to as COVID 19) swept the world, and we have a whole new language to be absorbed into our English dictionaries.

According to Edward Luce, who wrote an article called ‘The Pandemic Vocabulary’ for the Financial Times on 20 March, some of the words and phrases we’ve only recently started using are already in the Merriam Webster Additions. In fact, it’s astonishing how fast they’ve become absorbed into our daily language.

Zooming, Teaming and more
Thinking of the university and the adaptations we’ve had to make, who, for instance, would have known what Zooming or Teaming meant until three months ago? Already, however, they’ve become part of our working vocabulary just like WhatsApping and SMSing have done.

But there are far more words and phrases than these that we now accept as perfectly normal. Anyone who isn’t aware of them must surely have been living in a cave somewhere – at least that’s the impression they would make given how much part of our lives these words have become.

The ‘S’ words
It started with ‘self-isolation’ or ‘social isolation’ which was what older people in particular were advised to do to avoid coming into contact with the virus. Then to explain its spread, we spoke about ‘super events’ and ‘super spreaders,’ such as carnival and festivals. People who’d been in contact with infected individuals were advised to ‘self-quarantine.’ Fear of such risks then meant we had to have ‘contactless delivery’ for our groceries, post and packages so we didn’t actually touch anyone physically. We were also encouraged to indulge in ‘virtual happy hours’ by Zooming rather than getting together with our friends for drinks.

Policy terms
The governments brought in other terms, like ‘flattening the curve,’ ‘second wave’ and ‘herd immunity.’ And most common of all here in the Netherlands, the signs seen everywhere instructing the public  to keep ‘1,5m distance.’ We don’t need to ask ‘from what?’ It has only one connotation that I know of these days.

When it comes to the news, we now hear much about ‘caremongering,’ a term used to refer to the spreading of worrying reports. There is also the concern about ‘young vectors,’ in other words, children who may carry the virus without showing symptoms.

Buzz words or real vocabulary?
It’s sometimes hard to keep up with all the new buzz words and phrases that are being created on a daily basis as a by-product of the pandemic. It’s equally hard to foresee how long they will remain in common use. However, what we do know is that these terms are a reflection of how fast language adapts to new situations. Many of these words will probably disappear from use once the crisis is past, but they could also remain as part of our terminology for other situations.

Just for example, we now have new acronyms that will almost certainly continue to be used: WFH, which is Working from Home, and WFO which is, predictably, Working from the Office. They are so useful they’re bound to stay and I’ve no doubt we’ll go on writing messages to colleagues like, “sorry, WFH today. Can’t help you till tomorrow” for many years to come.

The quick sands of modern language
In the end, though, language shifts and changes to suit the people speaking it. We only have to hear someone using an outdated term to find it (and maybe even the person) faintly ridiculous. In many respects, our day-to-day vocabulary is like quicksand, particularly when it comes to English which is so international. You have only to grasp it before it’s gone; dispensed with to make room for the next popular phrase. Those who attempt to make rules about it have only to remember how people spoke in the 19th century to appreciate how much the words we use, and even our grammar, have changed.

The language of this pandemic is undoubtedly going to be with us for as long as it takes the virus to run its course. But who knows whether and for how long it will last into the future?

Source: Financial Times

  • Valerie Poore was born and raised in England but later moved to South Africa where she gained experience in Marketing and Communications, both as a practitioner and as a trainer. She returned to Europe in 2001 and has been working for the Language and Training Centre (EUR) as a freelance teacher and trainer since 2002. During this time, she gained her Master’s in TESOL, specializing in English for academic purposes. Valerie currently teaches writing skills to both business and academic students. In addition, she writes articles for magazines, as well as publishing her own books.

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