In trying to make sense of their new circumstances, under lockdown, in social isolation or distancing, ‘ordinary’ people are at the mercy of, and must come to terms with new language, some of it unfamiliar and difficult to process, some pre-existing but deployed in new ways.
I am using the shorthand #coronaspeak for all the novel expressions that the crisis has generated (US linguist Ben Zimmer coined the alternative ‘coronacoinages’, but my examples are not all new coinages, some are adaptations or existing terms). Phrases such as ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’ have become familiar, even if their meanings are still to some extent contested. But in a society in which, we are told, around 5 million UK citizens cannot even access the internet, how are we to negotiate this rise in ‘lexical load’, this ‘lexical overload’?
I’d like to consider first the ‘medicalisation’ of everyday language: the way in which technical terms from the jargon of sciences and healthcare cross over into popular usage. Some of these words and phrases seem transparent, even if their histories and implications are actually complicated. ‘Social distance’, for instance, was previously employed in sociology and psychology for, in the words of Dr Justin Thomas, ‘how close we are happy to get to members of an outgroup, e.g. would you be happy to marry a [insert outgroup here]’ and many, including the World Health Organisation – WHO – with hindsight have proposed that ‘social distancing’ (also criticised for being an oxymoron) be replaced by the more literal ‘physical distancing’ in present circumstances. A phrase like ‘test-vacuum’ can seem ambivalent or opaque, but in the current context refers specifically to the failure of the UK authorities to emulate Germany in carrying out mass testing of the population. Even the most basic concepts like testing, tracing are actually very difficult to unpack, especially as the official narrative on these pivots constantly – at times, it seems, deliberately.
There are, unsurprisingly, regional variations in the preferred terminology: quarantine in official and popular usage and shielding in place describing a policy protocol are heard relatively rarely in the UK; cocooning likewise, though it is a central plank in health policy in Ireland. There are also novel and forbidding coinages which at first defy interpretation, even if they describe something otherwise indescribable: I was recently warned against ‘epistemic trespassing’ which means, in the words of one Twitter contact, ‘when some idiot second guesses a specialist, e.g. when a cartoonist pronounces on epidemiology’
Some other examples of words which have transitioned into the national conversation, moving from technical or specialist registers into general usage are listed here with comments…
Pathogen – an organism that causes disease, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi
Antigen – in immunology a toxin or other foreign substance which induces an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies
Viral load – the total amount of viral particles that an individual has inside them and may shed
Respiratory – relating to the organs of the body responsible for breathing. When pronouncing, the word used often to have the stress on the first syllable, but more recently the stress is usually placed on the second (‘pir’)
Ventilation – the use of artificial methods to assist breathing
Proning – requiring intensive care patients to lie on their front to reduce their need for oxygen
Incubation period – the time between being exposed to a virus and becoming aware that one is infected
Intubation – the inserting of an endotracheal tube (ET or ETT) through the mouth and into the airway of a patient to assist breathing: extubation describes its removal
Pandemic – an epidemic – a quickly spreading disease – which has spread very widely and infected a high number of individuals
Vectors (of transmission) – agents such as infected individuals that transmit infectious pathogens into a population
Contact tracing – identifying, then assessing and monitoring those who have come into contact with an infected individual.
Flatten the curve (popularised to ‘squash the sombrero’) – to slow the spread of a virus, for instance by social containment measures, so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time. The term is epidemiologist jargon, but has been criticised as being a euphemism
PPE – personal protective equipment used to shield the wearer from work-related hazards
Palliate – means to make (a disease or its symptoms) less severe without removing the cause. hence ‘palliative’ care where no cure is possible. Ironically, ‘palliate’ can also mean to disguise the seriousness of (an offence)
Psychoneuroimmunity – the desirable state achieved by way of ‘preventive strategies of healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, balanced nutrition, quality sleep and a strong connection with people’
Furlough(ed) – appearing in English in the 17th century, the word is related to Dutch verlof, leave, and refers to the granting of a paid leave of absence. The term was employed in British military jargon during WW1 but until now was generally considered an Americanism
Mitigation – the reduction of the severity of symptoms
Immunocompromised – having a weakened immune system, hence less able to fight infections and other diseases
Comorbidity – one or more illnesses or diseases suffered by a patient at the same time as a primary condition
Harvesting effect – a temporary increase in the mortality rate when secondary factors such as underlying health conditions add to the number of victims of an epidemic
Patient zero – the first case or the first documented patient in an epidemic
Red zone – a geographical area or location classified as having the highest levels of infected individuals and which should be placed under quarantine
Super-spreader – an infected individual who transmits the infection to a higher than average number of others
Asymptomatic – displaying no symptoms of an infection. Infected individuals who are asymptomatic are sometimes known as ‘silent carriers’. The term began trending again in the light of the second wave in October 2020, sometimes in the variant form asymptomic
Hot spot – a cluster of, or a location showing a concentration of cases of infection
Petri dish – literally a shallow dish in which biologists culture cells in a laboratory. Now commonly referring to an enclosed environment in which infections can spread unchecked
Cluster effect – the result of concentrations of people at social gatherings, often in public places, enabling an accelerated spread of infection
Shielding – by or for the most vulnerable individuals, this means taking the most stringent measures in order to minimise interaction
Shelter in place – a US security protocol whereby citizens are warned to confine themselves, originally in the event of chemical or radioactive contamination
Crisis triage – emergency short-term assessment and assignment of treatment of individuals suffering from sudden overwhelming medical or psychological symptoms
Peak surge – a term properly used in relation to power surges in electric circuits but used now to describe the maximum level reached in an accelerating increase in cases of infection
Fomite – an inanimate object contaminated with or exposed to infectious agents (such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses or fungi), which can transfer disease to a new host.
Zoonotic diseases – infections which spread from animals or insects to humans, also known as zoonoses
Donning, doffing and disposing – putting on, removing and disposing of PPE (personal protective equipment) in official medical parlance
R rate – R0 (‘r-nought’) is a mathematical gauge of the reproduction rate of a contagious disease
Behavioural fatigue – a supposed reluctance to adhere to social conduct norms, should imposed strictures, such as containment and confinement, continue for too long
Seroprevalence – the number of persons in a population who test positive for a specific disease based on blood tests, a measure of cumulative infection
Anosmia – loss of the sense of smell, and in some cases also taste
Pod – a self-contained unit of confinement such as an isolation pod in a medical facility, a social contact or family pod providing space for personal interaction during quarantine. Bubble is used in the same sense in some settings
Immunity passport – a proposed certificate issued by national authorities confirming that the bearer is free from infection
Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) – actions, apart from vaccinations and medicine, that people and communities can take to help slow the spread of contagious infections, also known as community mitigation strategies
Aerosol transmission – the spread of infection via tiny, lingering airborne liquid particles rather than by exhaled droplets or fomites (contaminated objects)
Long COVID – the experience of those who have recovered from initial coronavirus infection but continue to suffer from a range of significant symptoms
Transmission advantage – the ability of a mutant strain of a virus to spread more quickly than the prevalent version of the infection
Zero Covid – a strict containment strategy or policy typically involving total shutdowns
Surge testing – additional community testing offered and encouraged in areas where mutations of the coronavirus have led to a sudden increase in cases of infection, even by asymptomatic individuals
Booster dose/shot – a third vaccination for those who have already received two
Plan B – a set of precautionary measures outlined by the UK government in September 2021, potentially to replace those in place, in the event of a surge in infections at the onset of winter. Medical experts unsuccessfully urged the government to move to this level of response in October.
Critical incident – a set of circumstances (as in January 2022) requiring special emergency responses, defined by the NHS as ‘any localised incident where the level of disruption results in the organisation temporarily or permanently losing its ability to deliver critical services, patients may have been harmed or the environment is not safe, requiring special measures and support from other agencies’
Endemicity – a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ in which infection rates stabilise in a society, allowing management of the pathogen
Primacy effect – the psychological phenomenon whereby the earliest in a list of successive instructions remains the most influential, as with public perceptions of the importance of hand sanitising when this is subsequently shown to be relatively ineffective.
I am still appealing for contributions to my lexicon via this site, on Twitter or by email, and will thank and credit contributors where possible. My next posts will look at slang and colloquialisms and newly invented expressions related to Covid-19.
For the terms considered here I am very grateful to, among others, Professor Carmine Pariante, Alan Pulverness, Nigel McLoughlin, Gail Jennings and Julian Walker
There is a comprehensive glossary of coronavirus-related technical terminology, published in Canada and updated weekly:
I belatedly became aware of the important response by linguists to the pandemic in China, and to the novel concept of emergency linguistics. More details of the role of language in that context can be found here:
Colleagues at King’s College London are looking beyond the Anglosphere at the ways in which language is used both to react to and to construct the realities of the global crisis:
In August 2020 the German army published this comprehensive multilingual glossary of technical and administrative COVID-related terminology:
One year later and abiding problems are covid-denial, vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal. Professor Elena Semino continues her research into the framing and metaphorical features of pandemic-related communications:
Another intriguing aspect of corona-discourse is the use of phraseology in reporting and in messaging, as described in this retrospective from September 2021:
Retrospective academic treatments continued to appear after the pandemic’s apparent subsidence in most of the anglosphere. This from August 2022: