Covid and the Mutation of Language

The pandemic has led to a explosion of new phrases and a language that has become commonplace in how we talk and understand the new world.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The word covid has united us this year – but has had a profoundly different effect on each of us. For some , it has made people more patient, more appreciative of friends of family and more thoughtful. For others it has been life shattering as they cope with isolation, food poverty and bereavement. 

So, I was intrigued  to read Ben Zimmers’ article in the Wall Street journal on his selection for his word of the year -COVID.  Zimmers is Chairman of The New Words Committee and has been for over a decade. His rationale of course is that this five letter word, which did not exist at the beginning of 2020, has cast a long shadow over our language and how it turned our world upside down.


Britains’s departure from the EU gave the world a variety of new terms including “brexiteer,” “remainers” and words such as backstops, no deal, and hard borders meant something more to each of us living through the protracted exit. 


But I think Ben Zimmer is right to choose as his winning word of the year: Covid, but for many different reasons. Covid and the pandemic has led to a explosion of new phrases and a language that has become commonplace in how we talk and understand the new world. This dialect didn’t exist pre Wuhan ( whoever outside of China ever heard of Wuhan before February 2020?). This new Covid vocabulary that has emerged over the past year reflects the upheaval that has become part of our everyday lives.


Phrases and language that meant something to us for decades now have a completely new meaning: 

Contact tracing now has nothing to do with art

Bubbles no longer have  to do just with bathtime. 

Zoom is no longer just a camera setting 


Masks are no longer just for Halloween 


Quarantine is  no longer just for dogs


Garden parties are no longer just for summer


Lockdown is not only for those in prison


Tiering now has nothing to do with cakes 


Super spreader has nothing to do with butter


Nightingale is more than a bird


PPE is now not just a degree from Oxford


A support group is no longer just for alcoholics 


The WHO is  no longer about the 1960s band 


The R rating is no longer just for movies


Corona is no longer just a beer


Flatten the curve is not about your waistline 


Social distancing is not just for the unpopular.


Self isolation is a now a new level of loneliness. 


To use protection is not just about contraception.


A year ago, we avoided  negative people. In 2020 we now stayed away from positive people.


The status hierarchy of work turned upside down as we redefined who key workers are and which essential  businesses they work for. As we fight to free ourselves from Covid, holding onto this expanded dignity of work is critical to our future and our recovery as a society. 

So together, let’s toast to 2021 and raise our quarantinis for a healthy and happy new year and the quick rollout of many successful Covid vaccines. 

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