A generation from now, we will look back on this time and remember our shared language–a shared language that citizen sociolinguists have made visible and viable. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have all been learning new words and phrases, and while we haven’t been able to share each other’s space and live company, we have been able to create a new global Lingua Franca for the COVID-19 era.
A generation from now, we will look back on this time and remember our shared language
To illustrate, let’s take a cursory scan of new words being popularized, circulated, re-created, and joked about these days. COVID-19, of course, has been coined in the last few months. Is there anyone on the planet who does not know what this refers to? And Merriam-Webster has already compiled lists of suddenly frequent vocabulary words we all have been hearing, including virus, contagious, infectious, superspreader, and quarantine. The York Times also just published a useful glossary covering these terms, throwing in state-of-emergency, incubation, containment, and R-naught.
I appreciate these careful compilations, but these are words that scientists of infectious diseases have known and been using for a while, as experts. Everyday people experiencing this pandemic have simultaneously been creating an all new vocabulary of our own. By re-thinking some of these terms from the scientific community, having conversations about these very words, and by endlessly generating and popularizing more words related to this pandemic, we have been able to make sense of our own world in our own words, together—while maintaining a safe distance from each other.
The phrase Social Distancing, for example, has baffled some, coming across as an oxymoron. I’ve had numerous conversations in which people puzzle over how we can be “social” and “distant” at the same time, and heard friends snappily assert that we need to be physically distant but remain socially connected. But we keep using the phrase anyway. And, it has expanded from noun phrase to adjective: We now have social distancing workouts, social distancing car circles, social distancing study halls, and even social distancing fun runs. We can still catch The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah. I just googled “Social Distancing” and the first phrase that popped up on the search dropdown menu was social distancing baptism (and the first image featured a minister aiming a super-soaker at an infant).
During all this social distancing, Universities across the globe have been using the most popular video-conferencing platform, Zoom, to take learning on line, and this has led to more word play: Zoomed out, for example, to describe that zoned out feeling and glazed expression one might get after a day of meetings and classes on Zoom. That is, if you weren’t Zoombombed by a hacker, popping into your meeting uninvited, with inappropriate messages and images.
On top of these new words, certain place names have become part of everyday conversation, and now resonate with us all. Wuhan is a huge city in China with a population of over 11 million people—more than New York, Tokyo, or London. But until COVID-19, most Americans had never heard of it. While the coinage of Wuhan virus gave a one-sidedly negative perspective of the city, more nuanced associations with Wuhan are emerging—as illustrated by this “The Wuhan I Know” comic recently created by Laura Gau, gaining popularity on Twitter, and featured on public radio. Now nearly everyone in the US probably knows the name of that city, and many of us can even picture its location on a map, inside another newly familiar location, the Hubei Province. Similarly, the Lombardy Region of Italy, and even New Rochelle, New York have become commonplace in conversation. We’ve all expanded our repertoire to include these distant—and not so distant—place names.
But we’ve also been sharing and resurrecting terms about the time we spend at home: Procrastibaking (a combo of procrastinating and baking that some are trying out for the first time) has been reappearing and featured in more social media posts. As has the need for no-knead bread (who knew?) and pizza kits (now being picked up from favorite pizza joints to be assembled, safely, at home).
And more and more we’ve been popularizing words for new activities we are doing together (apart), by tacking the word virtual onto it all. Now we have virtual happy hour, virtual brunch, and Zoom’s virtual background. My son, still at college on the West Coast, but living off-campus, just had a virtual zoom birthday celebration with us, his East Coast family, along with his West Coast housemates, whom he calls his social distancing team.
We’re all in this together, and our language shows it
Some of these new words and phrases may evoke the specter of loneliness, and some of these place names may draw a momentary infamy they never asked for, but this is how we, as a society, develop a common relationship to our new, uncommon conditions. Even in the best of times, much of the way we all experience the world together is by sharing language with each other. As we use and talk about words together, those words themselves become our shared experience. Even just hearing certain words again and again, as they morph little by little–Zoom, Zoomed out, Zoom-bombing, social distancing pizza kit, social distancing friendship, social distancing–gives us a sense we are all living life as one collective. In the time of COVID 19, this type of shared language experience provides a form of existential hope. We are all in this together—and our language shows it.