Do you speak Covid?

Coronials will associate it to a particular period, hopefully not their entire lives. (Credit Keystone - Michael Probst)

Covid-slang: Let's check if you're up to coronaspeak!

As the virus altered the lives of billions of people, a new way of speaking, a strange naming of things, almost like a Corona Esperanto spread as quickly as the pandemic. People started using new key words, as if to say: “I speak the language”. Chatter in places like supermarkets became peppered with highly technical medical terms. New hashtags appeared all over social media. People working in Geneva’s International arena are famous for using abstruse jargon and obscure acronyms but let’s check if they’re up to date on the “coronapage”.

Coronaterminology “Self-isolating”, “pandemic”, “quarantine”, “social-distancing “lockdown” “key workers”, even the historical Oxford English Dictionary (OED) had to release a special edition outside of their quarterly publication cycle with:

  • Nineteen words either re-purposed or more prevalent because of the coronavirus. Some of them, like ‘'self-isolation’” date from the 19th century, when it was used to describe isolationist-minded nations. Others, like “shelter-in-place” date from the 1970s, when it was used in reference to shelter from nuclear or terror attacks. Confinement, a delicate Victorian-era term associated with certain female health conditions, became the Franco-European equivalent of the rough American “lockdown”. Regardless of origins, however, all of these terms, and more, saw a massive increase in usage over just a few weeks. So, although the terms were not all brand new, their most current usages, in relation to Covid-19, were not in the dictionary.

  • One completely new word: Covid-19, an abbreviation of coronavirus disease, 2019 - for the year in which it emerged.

From a linguistic point of view, words, even if they seem quite new, often hearken back to other historical terms or roots. That’s not a surprise. But it’s a rare and fascinating experience for lexicographers to observe an exponential rise in the usage of words in such a short period of time. Fiona McPherson, senior editor in the new words group for the OED:

“Everybody knows them, no matter which profession you are working in or your background. They have become almost second nature to us.”

Used only by a small group of people before -scientists or medical professionals- words such alcogel, a shorthand reference to hand sanitizer including alcohol that kills the virus as well as potential Covid-19 treatments, like remdesivir, have now entered the public discourse.

Coronacronyms have also entered our lives. PPE is perhaps the one most universally recognized as the shorthand for “personal protective equipment”. Previously, it was a reference to universities offering combined courses of study in: philosophy, politics and economics. The acronym WFH, on the other hand, dates from 1995, but has enjoyed a surge of popularity as working-from-home became a norm.

Coronawork In any work place, there’s always been a corporate jargon used to show that you are “one of the gang” but now it also shows your colleagues that you are up to date with the culture of the pandemic workplace. A few words are completely new like “The future of work” or “hot desking” - a term suggesting social distancing while at work.

Social neologism or blends Two words meshed together, usually blending quite nicely, to respond to a new social situation and describe this covidocene (covid era). We saw a covidslang, sometimes highly creative, sometimes judgemental, blossom in our everyday lives. The most symptomatic being:

  • Infodemic: information + epidemic. The spread of information, some of it not so substantiated, contributing to anxiety or speculation, linked to a crisis or a controversy. Interestingly it was coined in 2000 to describe the potential misinformation associated with the SARS epidemic (an earlier coronavirus).

We saw:

  • Covidiots : covid + idiot. People who break the government guidelines on lockdown and social distancing in the face of the covid-19 crisis. Example: people who irresponsibly have picnics in the park while sitting in close proximity. Synonym: Moronavirus

We had:

  • Covideoparties: covid + videoparty. New video parties organized in response to the lockdown.

We drank:

  • Quarantini: How do you take it? Shaken, stirred? The right answer being “I’ll have a “Coronita” a Corona- beer cocktail to “Netflix and chill”.

And saw:

  • Covidivorces and people being “zoomped” quite harshly. Not to mention wondering how our kids would resume their studies after their long coronacation.

But now is almost time for Covexit ( covid + exit), you got it? You’re fluent.

Corononalanguage’s functions

  • Practical: obviously to inform people and describe what is happening, measures taken, how their lives are being transformed.

  • Humorous: this very creative and often humorous language provides a sense of relief in a difficult situation. “It’s a coping mechanism, it makes people smile and it should not be underestimated,” McPherson.

  • Critical: to pass judgement on somebody’s behavior you don’t approve of. “They draw a line between the ones who act responsibly and the ones other there who don’t. Social policing almost. We saw that during the Brexit and today with covidiot,” Dr Veronika Koller, discourse analyst at Lancaster University.

  • Socially binding and challenging the “normal” view of things.

Coronametaphors Metaphors have a strong impact on our collective unconscious, says Koller who researches language and politics, and the use of metaphors in healthcare communication:

“We all speak in metaphors but most of them are very conventional. With such a change in social situation, politicians use them deliberately in order to explain things but also to make people change their behavior.”

  • War metaphors: At the beginning of the pandemic politicians used a lot of these to make people aware that the situation was serious, dangerous and urgent.

  • Journey metaphors: comparing the epidemic to travel. “We are coming out of a long tunnel” or “we are all in the same boat in a stormy sea”.

  • Sports metaphors: to build up resilience in people and explain the epidemic can last longer.  “This is not a sprint, this is a marathon”.

  • “Metaphor can (also) be a useful way of glossing over details because you don’t have them,” said Koller referring to Boris Johnson, who has been accused of using too many, such as: “‘we’ll turn the tide on the virus.’ So what does that exactly mean? There is a lack of detail and clarity here.”

Coronaparadoxes To make sense of something that doesn’t make sense, and for which there are no ultimate answers. Speech is often completely contradictory, because nobody knows really and the government is in disarray. Triggered by the very topic of the pandemic and its symptoms, such as respiratory problems: suffocation. The virus suffocates us, and socially we cannot communicate with one another. But at the same time it allows us to breathe again because we stopped mass producing.

A lot of politicians have also said we need to stay (physically) apart in order to stay together (showing solidarity with others).

In Switzerland Minister of health Alain Berset had this legendary quote:

“We must act as quickly as possible but as slowly as necessary.”

Coronabuzz …or there to last Any historical period, in which a crisis hits a large population, also experiencing a revolution in technology and social upheaval, will witness an explosion of words.

“After the Brexit referendum, practically overnight, [and similarly] in the pandemic within a few weeks, we were faced with a totally different situation. And there was a need to come up with a new language or new uses of language to accommodate this new reality,” says Koller.

“The coronavirus is doing what language does, society is changing in some way or being affected, and the language is being used to reflect that. It always come in that order,” said McPherson.

We are just more aware of it because so much information is at our fingertips with rolling news and social media. Will it have a lasting effect on language? Once all this is over, which will take a while, we will probably remember coronalanguage with mixed feelings. And, hopefully, in twenty years time coronials, quanranteens and coronababies will associate it to a particular period - but not their entire lives.