2020 and Covid-19: New times, new rules, new language

Prospect Park, Reading UK on 20 May 2020. Photo by Denise Santos ©

If someone told me last January that nine months later I’d be using the phrase “my mask” several times a day, every day, I’d be reluctant to believe. And there have been other recent additions to my linguistic repertoire. I now frequently talk and write about “going into quarantine”, “lockdowns” and “self-isolation” – concepts that never found a place in my speech or writing before last February. Some other words have gained new, dominant nuances in my current conversations. If a friend tells me she’s been on a plane recently, and I then ask her, “Have you developed any symptoms since then?” I don’t need to explain what symptoms I’m talking about. My friend will assume, correctly, that I’m talking about Covid-19.

I’m sure the pandemic has affected the way you speak as well. Covid-19 may not be the main topic of all the conversations we have nowadays, but it is bound to be present at the background of many (most?) of these conversations in one way or another.

The name “Covid-19” is fairly recent: it was announced in February 2020 by the World Health Organization to describe a coronavirus disease (hence the “co” and “vi” bits, plus the final “d”, in “COVID”) established in 2019. “Coronavirus”, on the other hand, is not a new word. It has been around since the 1960’s and it was added to the OED (the Oxford English Dictionary) in 2008. “Covid-19” is a much recent entry in the OED, having been added last April.

Definitions are important when we deal with language matters, surely. But things always get more interesting when we go beyond definitions and move into the realm of how people actually use language. In this post I’ll share some thoughts about different things I see happening with Covid-19-related vocabulary.   

Frequency of familiar vocabulary

Some words and phrases (like “masks” and “wash your hands”) are now being used to convey similar meanings to the ones they conveyed before the pandemic. But there is an important difference: they are being used much more frequently.

Changes in frequency are likely to affect the order of the definitions currently found in many dictionary entries. After all, dictionaries present definitions according to their frequency of use. The first definition presents the most frequent meaning attached to that word; the second definition, the second most frequent meaning, and so on. To illustrate my point, let’s consider a situation when we talk about “bubbles” nowadays. Chances are we mean the following:

“a small group of people who interact or socialize exclusively with one another in order to contain the spread of a contagious disease”. (From dictionary.com)

As I write, the definition above is shown as the 11th meaning attributed to the word “bubble” in dictionary.com. My hunch is, next time the lexicographers in charge of updating the site look at this, they will alter this ranking and move this meaning higher up in the entry.

New words

New language has been created – and will continue to be created – to talk about Covid-19 itself and the new ways characterising people’s lives since the beginning of the pandemic. In both April and July 2020 the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) published unprecedent updates, outside their usual quarterly publications, to address new language associated with the pandemic. The dictionary saw the addition of new word entries (e.g. “infodemic”, “RO” and “self-isolate” in April and “contact tracing”, “Zoom” and “frontliner” in July) and sub-entries (“to flatten the curve” in April; “communtiy spread” and “hand gel” in July). These updates have also included changes in already existing sub-entries (for example for “social recession” under “social”) and additions to unrevised entries such as “elbow bump”).

And the changes keep coming. Academics have been researching these new uses in important ways, and I’m particularly puzzled by the results from research done at the University of Reading, UK, pointing to the fact that language about the pandemic in Anglo-American media heavily resorts to war metaphors (using phrases like “fight the virus” or “the battle against coronavirus”) as opposed to German preferences. In Germany, the media will tend to use terms that suggest a scientific stance to the matter, such as “investigate”, “compare” or “inform”.

Speaking of new words, let’s not forget acronyms such as PPE (personal protective equipment) and WFH (work/ing from home), both included in the OED update last April. I hadn’t heard of PPEs before March, and I now often find myself using this acronym given that friends and family members work in social care or medical sectors. Regarding WFH, I’ve in fact been working from home for many years now– so in this respect 2020 hasn’t changed my work routine in dramatic ways. But I’d never produced the sentence “I WFH”. Now I do. And I receive messages saying things like “I’m WFH now so my schedule is quite flexible” or “What do you think about WFH?”.

Child language development

Has Covid-19 affected child language development significantly? We don’t know yet and future research will tell. But I can share a couple of anecdotes in this respect. My 3.5-year-old granddaughter often talks about “the virus” in ways I don’t remember young children from the past doing.  A friend of hers the same age will interrupt group play to say things like “I can’t go to your house because of the virus” or “We can’t hug because of the virus”. The word virus, her mother tells me, is pronounced emphatically, as in /ˈvaaaɪɹəs/.

Less dauntingly, the other day my granddaughter surprised me while we were walking on a track in a widlife park by asking me, “Is this a one-way system?”. One-way system? Since when have three year olds know what this means? But she was right. It was a one-way system indeed. My other granddaughter, slightly younger, interacts competently with COVID-related signposting and promptly says things like “We have to go that way” when she see signs with arrows pointing to a particular direction.

Gender

In languages that have grammatical gender (that is, which contain masculine and feminine words), people have been making different decisions to talk about Covid.  The Académie Française, an institution whose aim is to regulate about the French language, states that Covid should be a feminine term (la Covid) because it is the acronym ot the English term “corona virus disease” and the word “maladie” (French for disease) is feminine.

Conversely, the Real Academia Española suggests that the word should be masculine  “due to the influence of the coronavirus [masculine] gender and other viral diseases ( Zika , Ebola )”. There seems to be variation in the Spanish-speaking world, though. After all, as we all know, it’s hard (impossible?) to legislate about language. At the end of the day it is speakers – and writers – who will define what becomes frequently used in a particular language.

The fluidity of this matter can be witnessed on a web page of the Brazilian Ministry of Health: there we can find, on the same page, both feminine (“a Covid-19”) and masculine (“o Covid-19”) uses. Whether there is such variation because there have been different authors on the page, or because one single person who wanted to remain gender neutral wrote the page, we don’t know. But this example shows how complex this topic is.

Why these things matter

How people talk about things have an effect on how we see these things. So word frequency, new words, metaphors, child language production and development, gender – all these things matter. They have implications on how we come to make sense of the extraordinary circumstances we live in. Moreover, how our generation decides to talk about this pandemic is likely to have implications on how future generations will understand our times and its challenges.

So it’s important to remember: we can choose how to speak or not to speak. How to write or not to write. How to design signs – what to put in and how, what not to include.

And I finish this post with the idea of “language choice” in mind. For that I focus on one particular expression that bothers me a lot: “social distancing”.  Ever since I heard it for the first time I’ve felt that there was something not quite right with it. Then in late March I came across the following tweet by the linguist David Crystal:

I couldn’t agree more with Crystal’s perspective. I was also happy to find out, when writing this post, that the Canadian government now uses the term “physical distancing” (in lieu of “social distancing”, which they used at the beginning of the pandemic).  I too tend not to use “social distancing” – linguistically speaking, I mean. I do maintain physical distance from other people when I’m outdoors, but I feel it’s more important than ever to try and establish some type of social connection within the constrainst of the physical distancing. And maks that will hide our smiles. A friendly, empathetic look towards other people when you’re out and about can do wonders I think.

Stay safe everyone!

4 thoughts on “2020 and Covid-19: New times, new rules, new language”

  1. Hello, Denise, miss you! Happy to read your enriching post about this “linguistic epidemic” that we are going through. It’s amazing how an event affects the language. And you are right, we need to keep physical distance (not social) and maintain social connection, even with restrictions.

    • Hi Alexandre, I’m glad you’ve stopped by to leave a comment. The (lack of) social connection these days has been worrying me lately – not only in our everyday lives but also in teaching and learning. Miss you too!

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