How Covid-19 has not only changed our vocabulary, but also made us use language more gently

How Covid-19 has not only changed our vocabulary, but also made us use language more gently

Imagine being a lexicographer at a time like this, witnessing that rarest of events – the rise of the use of a single word over a year or more, and for that word to go on to dominate global discourse, sometimes even to the near exclusion of other topics.

The word – surprise, surprise, not – is “Covid-19”, an abbreviation of coronavirus disease 2019, usually shortened just to Covid, or even “Rona” by some. As the spread of the virus has altered and affected the lives of billions of people – we were at over 178 million cases globally on Friday – it has correspondingly ushered in a new vocabulary for the general populace, encompassing and embracing specialist terms from epidemiology and medicine, conjuring new acronyms to describe the experience of imposed isolation and distancing.

It’s true, great social change does bring great linguistic change, and we witness it now as we grapple, around the world, with rendering these Covid crisis times into language.

In 2020, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary did something unusual. For the past two decades they’ve issued quarterly updates (typically in March, June, September, and December) to announce new words and meanings selected for inclusion. In April, and then again in July, however, “in something of a departure”, they released special updates – citing a need, in these “extraordinary times” to document the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the English language.

“Covid-19” stood, as expected, at the top of their list, followed by “infodemic”, “R0”, “self-isolate”, “self-quarantine”, “shelter in place”, “social distancing”, “elbow bump”, “flatten the curve”…you get the picture. Though, surprisingly, they go on to note, “Covid-19” is the only actual neologism.

Coronavirus was first described in 1968 in an article in Nature, and was first included in the OED in 2008, though few people beyond the scientists studying them had heard of the term. The other words come to us from the past, when our forebears grappled linguistically with the epidemics they experienced.

Old words

The earliest of these, I learned, is “pestilence” borrowed from the French and Latin, first appearing in Oxford professor John Wycliffe’s Bible of 1382, in reference to the Black Death of 1347-50. “Quarantine” too has its roots in medieval Europe, where officials in the Venetian-controlled port city of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, Croatia) passed a law establishing trentino, or a 30-day period of isolation for ships – later extended to – you guessed it – 40 days or “quarantino”.

But it was the great plagues of the seventeenth century that flooded the English language with words to describe the experience of epidemic disease. “Epidemic” and “pandemic” appeared at this time. A village in Derbyshire chose to “self-isolate”, while the heroic population of Eyam “self-quarantined” to avoid spreading the disease to the surrounding villages.

The more recent SARS epidemic in 2003 gave us “infodemic” – a portmanteau word from “information” and “epidemic”, which describes the glut of often unsubstantiated online information relating to a crisis. Work From Home (WFH) comes to us as a noun in 1995 and a verb in 2001. “Social distancing” was first used in 1957, though apparently it described an attitude of aloofness rather than an attempt to physically keep a distance from others to avoid infection.

The full phrase “personal protective equipment” dates back to 1934, though the abbreviation PPE comes from 1977, and was restricted until now to mainly healthcare professionals. By March 2021, there was a decline in the number of Covid-related words in the OED “new words list”, with the addition only of “essential worker”.

New words

Yet Covid, and corona, have conjured a wealth of new linguistic coinage – covidiot, covidivorce, coronacoma, coronials, coronaspeck. (If your pandemic parlance isn’t up to scratch, that last is “coronavirus fat”, the weight gained during lockdown as a result of eating more than usual because of WFH.)

Were you attracted to someone you wouldn’t normally be attracted to during self-isolation? You found yourself a corona bae. In places where life is resuming some semblance of normalcy, you can make post-rona plans. Or if school is still online, you may treat yourself to a coronacation, or some “quarantine and chill”.

According to Christine Ro in her BBC article “Why we’ve created new language for Coronavirus”, many of the newly popular terms relate to the socially-distanced nature of human contact these days, such as “virtual happy hour” or “covideo party”, among many others. She noted that they “reflect the role of novel language as a coping mechanism.”

According to Robert Lawson, a sociolinguist at Birmingham City University, these innovative usages allow us to name whatever it is that’s going on in the world. “Once you can name the practices, the events, the social conditions around a particular event, it gives people a shared vocabulary…I think ultimately if you can name it, you can talk about it; and if you can talk about it, then it can help people cope and get a handle on really difficult situations.”

Old words, new meanings

This year, in many parts of (mostly urban) India, this “shared vocabulary” expanded considerably during the devastating second wave of the pandemic – not only to name and understand but also to provide or avail of help. Speedily, we learned about O2 levels and oximeters, Remdesevir and non-invasive ventilation. So many words are now rendered as familiar as book and breath: proning, superspreader, frontline, non-essential.

Almost every conversation I’ve had with friends and loved ones has included a discussion on positivity rates, or R value, the best combination when “double masking” or how to distill water for oxygen concentrators. The word “oxygen” now rings with echoes of its non-availability. It feels as though the very texture of the word has changed. And it isn’t the only one.

When I posted about this on Instagram, asking friends and followers, if they too had been thinking about language in relation to the pandemic, the response was overwhelming. Many said that the words “take care” – usually uttered lightly, fondly – carried new, heavier resonance. For one, the way conversations ended these days: stay safe, felt like an euphemism for “stay alive.”

Another person admitted that she was much more careful of hyperbole – “saying things like omg I died/can’t breathe etc, have become too real.” The line “I’m sorry for your loss” felt cold on someone’s tongue because she was “saying it so often.” For someone else, it was devastating when “Rest in peace” was suggested by the auto keypad while texting with a friend. Most poignantly, one person explained how she felt that “for our deepest feelings, we don’t have language. Just silence. Sometimes comforting. Sometimes, just that, an impossibility to articulate.”

It’s clear our greetings have also changed: stay home, stay safe. Our emails, though they usually always began with “I hope…”, now carry a weightier offering: “I hope you and your loved ones are well.” While it feels like the question “Shall we meet?” hasn’t been uttered in centuries.

At Michigan State University Sociolinguistics Lab, a team of researchers have been collecting recorded speech from Michigan residents since the beginning of April 2020 to track changes to language during the pandemic. According to them, the most recent time a major event had such an impact on language was the Second World War, because it brought people together who ordinarily wouldn’t have had contact with one another.

With the Covid pandemic, it’s just the opposite. We’ve been pried apart, and according to them we should perhaps expect to see similar seismic effects.

How will our language change? We don’t quite yet know. The world we emerge into will have its own lexicon, but from the responses on Instagram it seems that we may have, at least for the moment, become gentler, and our language reflects that too – with some confessing they’ve learned to say “I wish you well” and others admitting they now say “I love you” a lot more, and not just romantically.

They also text more frequently to say “this reminded me of you”. “I understood the importance of kindness in language,” was a sentiment I saw repeated often. Many said they were trying to use more empathetic language, because, as a user noted, “I don’t know what one might be going through.” This has made me realise, now more than ever, how inextricably linked they are—= – the world, language, us, each imprinting on each. We are changed by the world, by language, and all at once they too are changed by us.

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