In times of pandemic, everything goes faster: from our perception of how time passes (we are already in July!), to the production of scientific knowledge, through the way language is transformed. The word “coronavirus” has formally existed since the 60s, but we are building an entire new dictionary of words and expressions around it to try and capture what we are going through (and we are going through a lot).
Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King’s College London, is researching the creation and transformation of vocabulary that has come with the pandemic. According to him, there are three stages to that process:
- The first is the medicalization of our everyday language. We have incorporated words that did exist before, but those of us who are not doctors would not have come across if circumstances were different. We have learned the difference between a PCR test and an antibody test, the difference between respiratory assistance and ventilators, what contact tracing means and why R0 is important.
- At the second stage, we have created ways to express situations and feelings that we hadn’t encountered before. We go to covideo parties, replace Netflix and chill with Quarantine and chill, we call people who put others in risk of contagion covidiots and we add “corona” as a prefix to almost everything. Here is a guide to help you improve your Covid-19 fluency.
- And at the third one, governments and organizations have looked for strategic language to talk about the crisis. Argentinians, for example, don’t have lockdown or quarantine, but “aislamiento social preventivo y obligatorio” (preventive and compulsory social isolation). Some of these expressions have profound semantic consequences, that may even transfer to the field of public policy. Does the fact of having adopted the terms “essential workers” or “essential industries” also mean that we are rethinking the way we value these jobs and industries? Will that translate into some kind of change?
Staying apart to stay together, etcetera
The coronavirus is so present in our language that it already has its own ready-made phrases, expressions that we read so often that they work as prefabricated capsules of sense, like “apart together” or “together apart”. It’s happening in every language. This article analyses constructions used by Japanese politicians, such as “the enemy we cannot see”.
If you start typing “in times of” on Google, “pandemic” will be the first search suggestion (followed by “coronavirus”).
We are all starting sentences with those four words: journalists, social media users, communication campaigns and even I did in the very first line of this article. My first impulse was to replace it with something else to avoid the cliché, but these kinds of expressions have among its advantages that they are very economic. They say a lot with very little. In just four words, “in times of pandemic” brings to the mind of the person who is reading everything he or she has been feeling and living since March, and that is the most comprehensive preamble possible to whatever we want to say next.
The first disease with its own branding
And even though we surround ourselves with ready-made phrases and complex new expressions, we don’t even need that many words. This icon has the same meaning in every part of the world:
An e-commerce company that clarifies that it is suffering delays in the delivery of a product does not need to explain what it refers to when it accompanies the disclaimer with that icon. Many brands and organizations would envy the virus’ ability to install a logo. And the best thing is that it didn’t come out of a meeting between creatives, designers and account executives, but was created by an international and atomized community.
The disease has a name, a logo, and even a slogan. In a parallel world, Don Draper looks towards the horizon, taps his cigarette on the ashtray, closes his dreamy eyes just a bit and says: “Covid-19, flatten the curve.” Or is it “Covid-19, stay home”? Surely in the imaginary meetings between creatives and brand owners that was a heated debate.
Pandemic time is not wartime
And like every brand building process, this one also has some crisis management. The atomized international community that is building the branding of this disease, with no other incentive than being part of this moment in history, and that it passes in the least terrible way possible, has begun to pay attention to the use we make of words and their unnecessarily negative effects.
#ReframeCovid is a collaborative project created by linguists with the purpose of finding alternatives to war language when talking about the virus. A sustained use of these types of metaphors, they explain, could contribute to increasing anxiety and distort the key messages about the pandemic. In this shared document, anyone can add metaphors that they have read or heard, analyze them and propose ways to reverse them. The project was started spontaneously on Twitter by Inés Olza, a linguist from the University of Navarra.
Back to the future, coronavirus edition
Something amazing about the speed at which all this is happening is knowing that we are creating the words with which speakers of the future will refer to the past (which is today). We are creating the glossary of words that will be in history books (or video call lectures?) about this exceptional time. We are inventing the words that are going to be used by those that –unlike us– know how this story ends.