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The Covid-19 language explosion

From ‘covidiot’ to ‘coronacoaster’, the pandemic has thrown up almost a dictionary’s worth of new words

As readers are aware, one of my nerdy interests is in language and especially quirks of language. Show me a neologism and I’m away!

Covid-19 has led to an explosion of new words and phrases, both in English and in other languages. The new vocabulary helps us make sense of the changes that have suddenly become part of our everyday lives.

These include ‘covidiot’ (someone ignoring public health advice), ‘covideo party’ (online parties via Zoom or Skype), and ‘covexit’ (the strategy for exiting lockdown). The virus itself has acquired new descriptors, including ‘the ’rona’ and ‘Miley Cyrus’ (Cockney rhyming slang).

Other terms deal with changes to our everyday lives, from ‘Blursday’ (an unspecified day because of lockdown’s disorientating effect on time), to ‘zoombombing’ (hijacking a Zoom videocall). ‘WFH’ (working from home) and ‘quaranteams’ (online teams created during lockdown) are helping people deal with changing work circumstances.

One of the aspects I don’t particularly like are the war metaphors linked to Covid-19. More constructively, people are looking at how effective different metaphors are in encouraging compliance with public health advice, as well as issues of interpretation and access to healthcare.

Prof Robert Lawson, Professor of Sociolinguistics at Birmingham City University, points out that while the scope of innovation in relation to coronavirus is unprecedented, we only need to look to other periods of history to see how such linguistic creativity manifests itself in times of serious social crisis.

World War II gave us a range of words from ‘radar’ (radio detection and randing) to ‘fubar’ (fucked-up-beyond all recognition).

For major health pandemics, the lasting effect on language means the name of the disease enters common parlance, such as AIDS and SARS.

“But coronavirus has flipped the script and appears to be influencing public discourse beyond simply adding a new disease to the dictionary,” Lawson says.

He poses two questions in his article in The Conversation: Why are new coronavirus-inspired terms coined in the first place? And why have these terms found purchase in our lives so quickly? New words appear regularly, but few of them enter the wider public consciousness in the way coronavirus terminology has.

Language is a powerful unifying force.

In just three months, the coronavirus has fundamentally changed our ways of living. According to Lawson, “this new vocabulary has come to be a utilitarian shorthand for talking about coronavirus-related issues — from the impact the virus has had on our working lives, to the influence of the lockdown measures — or even just a way to poke fun and laugh at the world around us. The outpouring of metaphors, neologisms and lexical innovations we have seen in the past few months points to the fact that linguistic creativity is a key part of language, reshaping our ways of engaging with the world.”

Here are a few of my personal favourites: ‘Coronasplaining’ (purporting to explain aspects of the coronavirus-induced crisis, particularly to those who understand it better than the explainer); ‘pansession’ (a pandemic-associated widespread economic recession); and ‘coronacoaster’ (successive feelings of elation and despair experienced under conditions of confinement).

I suspect one of the biggest reasons for the new language explosion is that it helps us articulate our worries about the biggest health crisis we have seen in generations. It brings people together around a set of collective cultural reference points — a kind of linguistic ‘social glue’. Shared talk is an important part of helping us feel connected to one another.

Not many of us will be visiting the Netherlands anytime soon. The Dutch are famously straight-talking, but I wasn’t aware that they have an amazing range of swear words, many of which are medically-based: If someone annoys you in the street, for example, a common reaction is to tell them to ‘typhoid off!’ Unsurprisingly, ‘get the corona’ is already in wide use.

Without a doubt, one of the biggest drivers of the new language is our immediate access to social media. Once a hashtag takes off, it can, somewhat ironically, go viral in minutes.

More so than ever, online linguistic creativity shows how people gather to talk about new challenges, even in the absence of personal contact and conversation. Have any neologisms emerged from the explosion in online consultations, I wonder? Do get in touch if you’ve come across any.

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