by Eliot Reiniger

The language of the pandemic

What’s been getting you down for the better part of a year now? The COVID pandemic? Or is it Covid? (The other version seems so shout-y!) And didn’t this all start with Cardi B yelling something about the coronavirus? It’s all the same, really. Scientifically, a pandemic is an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area (such as multiple countries or continents) and typically affects a significant proportion of the population. The disease in question, which is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is called COVID-19 (short for coronavirus disease 2019). In English, we like things short, so COVID-19 – or just COVID – has really taken off in our daily language use. Sometimes, we even use the disease to describe the phenomenon as a whole: before COVID, since COVID etc. The Germans do something similar, but they say “Corona.” So, what’s correct?

Nothing is more constant than change

Language is constantly undergoing change. And when national or even global events affect the lives of many within a very short period, new words and expressions can crop up in the blink of an eye. English is particularly inventive in this way, allowing users to verb a noun, so to speak, or create portmanteaus (think: “brunch”) without even having to explain to their conversation partner what they mean. And linguistically speaking, this year did not disappoint. The pandemic has given rise to words such as quarantini, covidiot, situationship, and maskne. Reducing contact with others meant staying home, so we also had to work from home (abbrev’d: WFH – “teleworking” is old hat, unless you’re French of course, in which case télétravail is indeed the preferred term). To facilitate this, employees turned to video conferencing software, and Zoom experienced a huge boom (Zoom boom? You heard it here first!), leading to terms such as zoombombing (like photobombing). Not to mention that in the age of social media, there’s a hashtag for anything and everything worth talking about, hence campaigns to #StayAtHome and #FlattenTheCurve.

Existing terms also saw a spike in usage. Coronaviruses, for instance, were already in existence, even if they didn’t receive much press. And “social distancing” is not a new concept, just thankfully not necessary under normal circumstances.

What gender does the virus take?

Does this happen in other languages, too? Of course! While French is known for sometimes being rigid and avoiding the use of anglicisms, it has seen developments of its own in the wake of the pandemic. The lockdown periods, or confinements, imposed in France were quite strict. During the first one, residents were only allowed outside for up to an hour to do the necessary shopping, and they were forbidden from traveling farther than 10 kilometers from home. Perhaps that’s why there is so much excited chatter of déconfinement, or dread of potential reconfinements. However, there is some debate surrounding other terminology, such as distanciation sociale (social distancing) versus distanciation physique or spaciale (physical/spacial distancing) – similar to the US-UK divide on self-quarantining and self-isolating. Even the grammatical gender of Covid is disputed. L’académie française as well as most Canadian French speakers prefer the feminine la covid as a description of la maladie, or the disease. French speakers in France, on the other hand, claim that the masculine le covid sounds better, as le virus is masculine.[1]

German says it as it is

German is famous for having really long words, and this pandemic has shown the flexibility the prefix of corona has to offer: Corona-Maßnahmen, Corona-Verordnung, Corona-Krise, Corona-Zeit, Corona-Party, etc. (corona measures, regulation, crisis, times and party, respectively). There is also plenty of discourse about facemasks, or Mund-Nasen-Bedeckungen (mouth and nose coverings) to be precise. But in the interest of time, even the Germans prefer Maskenpflicht (the obligation to wear a mask) to the very possible but very unwieldy Mund-Nasen-Bedeckungs-Pflicht (the obligation to wear a mouth and nose covering). Angela Merkel herself made waves earlier this year with her fabricated Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien (roughly translated: reopening discussion orgies) with regard to overhasty excitement surrounding the potential for reopening society after lockdown, expressing her concerns of second and third waves. Speaking of lockdowns and in contrast to their neighbors to the west, Germans have no fear of (certain) English phrases, often incorporating lockdowns and social distancing into their daily dialogue.

Rapidly changing times, rapidly changing language

It typically takes somewhat longer for any observable change in language to occur on the scale we have seen this year. But then again, we will long look back on 2020 as a year in which the entire world was subjected to rampant change. People had to quickly develop strategies to cope, and communication played a key role. What’s going on in the world and how does that affect me? What do I need to do to keep going? What humor can I find in this challenging situation? In our digital world, we are more connected now than ever before, and the answers to these questions lie at least in part in our constant communication and linguistic innovation and creativity. Just like the pandemic itself, this process of linguistic evolution will persist. People will continue to present and assert their linguistic preferences, whether they are logical or not. Who knows what we will be saying in a year from now?

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[1] “Les mots de la pandémie entrent dans le dictionnaire. ” Revue de la Presse, August 2020, P. 14.