The evolution of language during the COVID-19 pandemic

WINNIPEG — Self-isolation. Physical distancing. Flattening the curve. Second wave.

Until 2020, these were phrases or terms that many people around the world were not thinking of.

Now, almost seven months after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic, a lexicon of language has evolved to help people understand the situation, cope with the disruption, or even simply to have fun with the new normal.

“There’s always a sort of an influx of new vocabulary around events and technological innovation, any kind of event,” said Jila Ghomeshi, professor & department head for the University of Manitoba’s linguistics department.

“One of the good examples, I think, would be on the events of September 11. We ended up with the abbreviation of 9/11, which we use now to refer back to that event. Previous to that, 9/11 wouldn’t have meant anything. We have ways to refer to the actual event if it’s like that, where there is a date we can trace something to, but in this case, it’s a medical event, then we have a lot of language that arises to describe what is happening.”

Some of the vocabulary that has taken hold during the COVID-19 pandemic includes terms and phrases such as physical distancing or social distancing.

“We first heard them in March; we didn’t have a concept associated with that, or a need for a label for that prior to March 2020. Similarly, self-isolation,” Ghomeshi said. “Those are new terms.”

METAPHORICALLY SPEAKING

Ghomeshi notes metaphoric language is the most common language to be uttered during the pandemic.

“If you’re trying to explain something that people don’t know about, the only way you can explain it is by relating it to something that they do know about,” she said.

She said repurposing of metaphors around illness, particularly terminal illness has occurred during the pandemic.

“It’s known through linguistic research around how we talk about cancer, for example, that we often invoke war metaphors, so we’re losing the battle, or we’re winning the battle, or you often see when people have passed from cancer, they’ll often be described as losing their fight with cancer.

“We see a similar type of metaphor in terms of fighting this virus, and uniting, and hoping to win the battle, and that serves to create a sense of we’re all in this together, and we have a common enemy, and just rally the troops so to speak, to the use the metaphor even further.”

Metaphors are also the subject of research from Veronika Koller, a professor in discourse studies at Lancaster University in England.

Koller is compiling the metaphors being used to describe COVID-19 around the world starting the project after hearing politicians in Europe using war metaphors to describe the situation.

Under the hashtag #ReframeCovid, which was started by a colleague, Koller has started an open document finding non-war-time metaphors and similes to help describe the current situation. She said she has received over 500 examples in 25 different languages.

“We have lots of metaphors to do with natural disasters,” she said, listing examples ranging from “‘a tsunami of cases,” to “smouldering embers” to describe a small number of active cases.

Other metaphors or similes are related to travel (“The coronavirus is a train across the world, but it had a very long stop in the United States”) or to a specific audience (a classical music station in England said “Asking people to self-isolate or lockdown, that’s like asking the string section of an orchestra to play quietly. It only works if everybody does it.”).

Koller said the metaphors and similes are a way for people to help cope with a new reality that has upended their lives.

“People are trying to understand an overwhelming thing that you cannot see,” she said. “You cannot see the virus, it’s so small, and you can hear of people infected, but it’s something that is invisible. But, at the same time, it’s huge, because it wreaks havoc on all of our lives. People try to understand this thing in a non-scientific way, because that’s for the scientists, and they’re trying to make sense of it in a laypersons way.”

WHAT WILL STICK AROUND?

Both Ghomeshi and Koller say it is hard to determine which words and phrases will stick around, noting the pandemic remains ongoing.

Koller said she expects “second wave” will be in a dictionary in future years.

“I think people will, in years to come, associate it with a certain point (in the pandemic), where people said ‘if we don’t take care, there will be a second wave,'” she said.

Ghomeshi believes the term “coronavirus” will stay relevant after the pandemic ends.

“The term ‘a coronavirus’ existed before, but I think that is permanently a part of our vocabulary, as with self-isolation and physical or social distancing,” she said. “So those are, I think, permanent.”

Ghomeshi said she also likes the phrase ‘flattening the curve” as a phrase that will stay around.

“I like that one because it is a visual metaphor, where you’re explaining rates of transmission in terms of something visual,” she said. “That kind of thing I think will be used in all kinds of ways.”

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