Word on the street: Covid pandemic has altered the way we live, and also our lexicon

September 13, 2020 2:00 AM

The pandemic has not only altered the way we live but also our lexicon. Body mullet, maskhole, covideo, domino distance, herd immunity, covidiot, oronageddon are just some of the neologisms that have taken over our language and lives

Some other such words and phrases include community spread, co-morbidity, contact tracing, dexamethasone, Zoom, flatten the curve, social recession, among others. Some other such words and phrases include community spread, co-morbidity, contact tracing, dexamethasone, Zoom, flatten the curve, social recession, among others.

By Reya Mehrotra

Maskhole, superspreading event, covidiot, face naked, coronageddon, domino distance. Till last year, one would struggle to grasp the meaning of these words and phrases. But not today. The pandemic has not only altered the way we live but also our lexicon. These and many other neologisms have taken over our language and are here to stay thanks to social media. The most common one is, of course, ‘social distancing’, which is practised everywhere today, from general stores and offices to banks and malls. Not surprisingly, observing this lexical evolution, popular dictionaries, too, are recognising and incorporating ‘pandemic words’.

Some other such words and phrases include community spread, co-morbidity, contact tracing, dexamethasone, Zoom, flatten the curve, social recession, among others. Even words like essentials, sanitisers, migrant labourers, hoarding, unprecedented, antibody and containment have come into popular usage and are the most commonly searched keywords online now.

Between April and July this year, Oxford University Press announced including words related to the pandemic in its Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It listed 32 entirely new words appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary for the very first time, including Covid-19, self-isolate, infodemic, self quarantine and so on. Fourteen new sub-entries or phrases were integrated into the body of new entries, with nine updated sub-entries and eight additions to unrevised entries like PPE (personal protective equipment), WFH (work from home) and so on. “We have published two special updates, outside of the normal publication cycle, which focus on words related to the pandemic. The first, in April, concentrated on words that were new to the OED and the second, in July, was a mixture of new entries and some revision of existing relevant OED entries,” says Fiona McPherson, senior editor, Oxford English Dictionary, who is based in Oxford, UK.

Linguistic change
Our world as we know it has suddenly been divided into two time periods: pre-pandemic and post-pandemic, with the phrase ‘new normal’ occupying prime space in our vocabularies today. However, there is nothing new about the phrase. It, in fact, finds mention in the 2004 book The New Normal: Great Opportunities in a Time of Great Risk, which was authored by American capitalist Roger McNamee with writer David Diamond. McNamee used the term more than a decade ago to talk about the dawning era of corporate scandals, terrorism, outsourcing of jobs overseas and a time of great uncertainty in general. “But the good news is that the new normal also offers tremendous opportunities,” McNamee wrote in the book.

Just like this phrase, the evolution of our dictionaries isn’t a first-of-its-kind event either. In fact, with every global event, language evolves. The phrase ‘die hard’, for instance, was coined during the Battle of Albuera in 1811 and its meaning differed from the contemporary one today. At that time, it was used to encourage soldiers in the war. Work from home (WFH), too, is not a new phrase, but gained more relevance this year, as several major companies announced WFH indefinitely for their employees. The term was actually coined in 1995, according to an Oxford English Dictionary article titled Social Change and Linguistic Change: The Language of Covid-19. It further says that several epidemics in the past have given birth to words like ‘self-quarantine’, ‘plague’, PPE, social distance and more. These words have just gained more relevance again now. “Global events like wars and pandemic have had great impact on the vocabulary. Today, certain words like ‘quarantine’ have become common in even non-English-speaking households. When a word becomes popular, the context is set too around the conceived meaning,” says Pranab Bagartti, a Delhi University linguistics scholar.

Some popular terms today such as ‘shell-shock’ and ‘basket case’ were the products of World War I, says Soumya Shree, a Jawaharlal Nehru University linguistics scholar. “The influence could be of a different wavelength, ranging from the coinage or borrowing of new words and expressions to the creation of a new language and even to its death, as there arises language contact situations, which could disturb and change the language sphere of an area. For instance, the audio-lingual method of teaching came into being during World War II when there was a requirement of quick learning with oral proficiency,” she says.

A wordy year
In July, The New Yorker compiled a list of the new pandemic words that are taking the internet by storm. ‘Body Zoom-morphia’, for instance, is finding your image on Zoom calls so unappealing that your attention decreases. It could be relevant to all working professionals operating from home, especially those dealing with body image issues and those conscious of facing the camera. Other words include ‘Covid-30’ (which means gaining weight while at home), ‘pan-demic’ (increased baking of bread at home), ‘helter shelter’ (when the quarantine day feels chaotic and everything seems dirty) and ‘domino-distancing’ (standing too close in a queue).

In fact, ‘2020’ alone could be the new term for everything that goes wrong (as the year has seen one disaster after another since its start: the pandemic, multiple celebrity suicides, the Beirut explosion, Mauritian oil spill, among others). Who knows one would, in some years, remark, “Oh, my life is a complete 2020!”

Recently, linguist Andrea Beltrama, a postdoctoral fellow in the linguistics department of the University of Pennsylvania, said in an article in Penn Today magazine (the university’s official news hub) that words come and go out of trend just like fashion. Talking about the impact on language at a time when video calls have replaced in-person meetings, he says, “I wouldn’t be surprised in a situation where there’s less opportunity to be exposed to people in our geographical proximity, it will lead some groups to hold on to particular linguistic features even more strongly as a way of retaining identity and signalling that, in this changing landscape, we still want to retain this particular aspect of who we are.”

Cautious usage
Some recent reports of the elderly being abandoned by family after being discharged from Covid-care facilities shocked many. In July, a 62-year-old woman committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh after her relatives refused to take her in suspecting Covid. In such a time, use of words that create a stigma must be avoided since words have the power to impact minds. One such phrase is ‘social distancing’, which more aptly should be ‘physical distancing’.

Arya Babu, a linguistics scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, warns against the wrong usage of the phrase, saying that socially distancing the affected might mean abandoning and banishing them from society. “Today, everyone knows what social distancing is… even the uneducated are using it. These words have become a part of our everyday lives, but what we need is physical distancing or else it becomes an ostracisation of those affected by the disease. The media must be careful in the usage of such words,” she says.

Words are often understood in the context of the situation rather than their literal meaning, which is the case with a lot of the pandemic words, feels Shubham Bokade, who is pursuing a master’s in linguistics from Jawaharlal Nehru University. “These new terminologies are being introduced in situations and contexts, where it is very easy to grasp the meaning without knowing what they primarily stand for. The function of physical distancing, for instance, has been assigned to social distancing,” says Bokade.

Popular pandemic words

Someone who hoards goods and ignores warnings about public health safety
One who wears their face mask inappropriately

Face naked
Facial exposure because of not wearing a mask in public

Body mullet
Formally dressed waist-up for conference calls and wearing informals below

A short video of a quarantined individual’s child which could be emotional or loveable

Herd immunity
The resistance to the spread of a contagious disease if the maximum population is immune to it, especially through vaccination

Protective covering as a measure to protect oneself from contagion

Community spread
Widespread transmission within the members of a community

Superspreading event
An infected person, or superspreader, who may or may not have symptoms, but mass infects others

Emotional distancing
Being emotionally distant by putting a relationship on hold or refraining from having a conversation

A desperate end-of-time situation created by political, economic and social devastation due to coronavirus around the world

Domino distance
When the person in queue behind you stands too close

A new language

Words included in the Oxford English Dictionary this year and their origin

Though coronaviruses were first described in 1968 in a research paper, Covid-19 is a shortening of the 2019-20 coronavirus disease.

First used for the SARS epidemic in 2003, the word is a combination of ‘information’ and ‘epidemic’, and means unsubstantiated information around the epidemic

It first originated at the time of the 17th-century plague in Derbyshire, England, and means self-imposed isolation to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease

Shelter in place
First used in 1976, it’s a protocol instructing people to stay in their current shelter till the situation normalises

Social distancing
First used in 1957, it meant to distance oneself from others socially

It was used in 1834 for countries that politically and economically detached themselves. Now, it’s the act of deliberately isolating oneself

Personal protective equipment
Its first usage was in 1934 and means the protective gear worn by medical professionals

Elbow bump
Its first usage was in 1981. It means an action where two people touch elbows as a way to avoid shaking hands

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