How COVID-19 is Changing Language
Language is evolutionary. Words and dialects are not born overnight, but come about over long periods of time. It is exceptionally rare to witness many words enter our collective vocabulary within weeks, but COVID-19 had led to exceptional circumstances. What are some of the words and phrases we now hear all the time that had no part of the public vernacular mere months ago? What does this mean for language, culture, and our society? Amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic, it is worth taking a look into the power of words.
Many of the new words in our collective vocabulary are in fact not new at all. “Self-isolation” refers to staying at home or by yourself to prevent contracting or infecting others with a disease. But the term has been used since the 1830s, and in the 19th century often referred to countries separating themselves from the global economy and politics. “Social distancing” is all about keeping a safe distance from others and only stepping out for essential matters. Yet the phrase has been around since the 1950s, and back then was more about wanting to avoid socializing less as a precaution and more as an attitude. These terms have taken on whole new meanings, scaling down in scope from politics and social attitudes to individuals and their behaviour.
The pandemic has shifted our language. We have placed greater emphasis on individual actions and our social responsibilities. Many workers are finding various ways to “work from home.” Those in “essential services” are wearing “personal protective equipment,” or PPE, such as gloves and masks. Our individual actions are helping to “flatten the curve,” or reduce the number of cases of COVID-19 resulting in lower numbers on a graph outlining infections. These words and ideas are critical in combating the pandemic. But they also highlight the very significant ways in which we impact others by even our smallest actions.
As we look inward to analyze our own way of being, we are also looking outward to society as a whole. People are advocating for better benefits to protect workers who have been laid off. This includes regular payments to all individuals through “Universal Basic Income,” or UBI, as well as “deferral,” “forgiveness,” and “freezes” of debt, credit, rent, and mortgage payments. This language demonstrates a greater push to fix the problems that have arisen due to corruption in politics and catering to corporations. The crisis is an opportunity for change. A vocabulary that increases self-awareness and cognizance of societal issues can lead to a transformation in what we value as important. Whereas society was previously taking small steps to address these issues, that could turn into major leaps.
Language plays a critical role in thought, communication, and civilization. The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-generation event accelerating its evolution. We are using terminology and phrases that are forcing us to be more consciously aware of our behaviours and how they impact others. We are talking more and more about the problematic and precarious nature of our economy and the lower and working classes. As our language changes, opportunities arise to also change our world for the better. The pandemic is terrifying. But so are economic inequality and environmental destruction. Our words can put us in a more positive mindset that can lead to substantial change.
Jackson, Peter. “Language of a Pandemic: A glossary of commonly used words and phrases related to COVID-19”. The Telegram. https://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/language-of-a-pandemic-a-glossary-of-commonly-used-words-and-phrases-related-to-covid-19-437420/
Makansi, Kristina. “As COVID-19 Disrupts Lives, Words Matter.” The University of Arizona. https://uanews.arizona.edu/story/covid19-disrupts-lives-words-matter
Merriam-Webster. “Coronavirus and the New Words Added to the Dictionary in March 2020.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/new-dictionary-words-coronavirus-covid-19
Paton, Bernadette. “Social change and linguistic change: the language of Covid-19.” Oxford English Dictionary. https://public.oed.com/blog/the-language-of-covid-19/