Art by Stephanie Ung

“Lockdown”, “social distancing” and “COVID-safe”: How did COVID lingo become so normalised?

By Tasarla Harman

When do new, eloquent terms become those annoying buzzwords we can’t stand to hear? Tasarla Harman investigates the emergence of “corona speak” during the pandemic and how it became a part of our daily lives.  

11 am has always marked a mid-morning moment of pause for a cup of tea and a sweet treat to keep us going until lunchtime. For Hobbits and British people alike, 11 am marks the meal affectionately termed, ‘elevenses’. But the recent updates from NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian have tarnished this tradition and left a bitter taste in my mouth (that cannot be blamed on the tannin).  

In one of the latest videos, one YouTube commenter says: 

“I’m so sick of the covid [sic] lingo… “Ring of steel”, “covid safe”, “covid normal”, “circuit breaker” yada yada yada… Why does the media continue to perpetuate this crap?”  

Why does the media continue to perpetuate this crap? 

But the lingo was not always crap, and it was not always perpetuated. Before “covid lingo” became overused, it initially indicated a new event people were processing through language.  

On the 11th February 2020, the WHO named the disease Coronavirus (or COVID-19). Just one month later on the 11th of March 2020, the WHO declared a pandemic. The virus and the words we used to refer to it quickly spread across the globe, and like the virus, these words multiplied. The virus and the disease are referred to as distinct objects with different names. The disease is called Coronavirus Disease (or COVID-19), while the virus is termed severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (or SARS-CoV-2). This is because the disease is named, according to the WHO, “to enable discussion on disease prevention, spread, transmissibility, severity, and treatment.” The viruses are named based “on their genetic structure to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines, and medicines.” People often know the name of the disease, but not the name of the virus that causes it.  

As the virus permeated into every facet of our lives, so did the language documenting these changes. We termed it the “new normal.” But we did not stop there.  

COVID-19 marked the inauguration of an onslaught of new words that are now part of our everyday lexicon. The oxymoronic “social-distancing” and hopeful “flattening the curve,” are coupled with “super spreader,” “community transmission” and “contact tracing.” These words have an uncanny aura as they crystallise something familiar yet terrifying.   

Jim Malo, a video-journalist based in Ipswich, writes on Twitter, “I’m very sick of hearing the words “medical advice”.  Malo’s phrasing suggests a dual affliction, first, of course, the coronavirus pandemic itself. Secondly, the inundation of jargon to describe the pandemic Malo suggests has left us feeling “sick”.  

So, when do new, eloquent terms descend into the inddepths of political jargon and buzzwords?

Howard Manns, a linguistics lecturer at Monash University, tells ABC RN’s Counterpoint, “Whenever we humans come across difficult times, we find languages a useful way of coping”.

The current “difficult times” plaguing NSW are referred to by the term “lockdown” as citizens are confined to their homes under “stay-at-home” orders imposed by the state government. The perceived relaxed rules of this lockdown by other states have modified this term into “mock down” to suggest the NSW regulations are not significant enough to warrant the term “lockdown.” 

These subtle alterations to our language denote a seismic shift in the attitudes of our community. 

Around 40 percent of new COVID-related terms are word blends: a combination of two or more terms. One example of this is a “quarantini”; used most notably by American actor Stanley Tucci to describe a martini made in quarantine. Another is the evolution of “Covidiot” to describe a person who ignores medical health advice. One use might be, “What kind of a Covidiot would wait until the 9th week of lockdown to impose tougher restrictions?”

Robert Lawson, a sociolinguist at Birmingham City University says: “If you can laugh … it makes things more manageable almost, and just helps with people’s psychological health more than anything else.” This can be seen with the induction of Coronavirus into the cockney rhyming slang dictionary as “Miley Cyrus.”

Lawson continues, innovative language use can “allow us to name whatever it is that’s going on in the world. And once you can name the practices, the events, the social conditions around a particular event, it just gives people a shared vocabulary that they can all use as a bit of a shorthand.” This shared vocabulary is a portal to identify and understand the world around us. If we can name an event, we can talk about it and learn to navigate our way through the challenges of the pandemic.

In the face of Gladys Berejiklian’s never-ending press conference and the vast sea of “corona speak” threatening to swallow NSW whole, I suggest a return to the reason these words were developed in the first place. We can use these unique phrases to open a conversation about the challenges we are currently facing and foster community bonds that have been decimated through the lockdown. We cannot forget the power of language to communicate experience and inspire change as we look past the trashy political jargon to the future development and evolution of words.

References

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vr-FGz8CEc
  2. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/naming-the-coronavirus-disease-(covid-2019)-and-the-virus-that-causes-it
  3. https://twitter.com/thejimmalo/status/1427167069343150084?s=20
  4. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/counterpoint/01-06-20/12299964
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7yV_ctYOVs  
  6. https://ychef.files.bbci.co.uk/1600×900/p08dwg1n.webp
  7. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200522-why-weve-created-new-language-for-coronavirus
  8. https://www.crfashionbook.com/celebrity/a34753199/miley-cyrus-everlasting-reinvention/

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