Coronavocabulary: an explosion of new language
English is a wonderfully creative and flexible language. Over its history, it’s had influences from many different languages (German, French, Latin, Greek) and it’s still evolving, with new words being created all the time. Here is a very interesting article on the creation of new words and expressions that have evolved during these Covid-19 times. Julie Moore, highly-respected lexicographer and expert on vocabulary, and friend of mine, looks at this new language and shares her thoughts.
New words enter the language to describe new technologies (WiFi, wearables) and the way we use them (selfie, newsfeed).
We create new words and phrases to describe social changes (gender fluid, neurodiverse) and inevitably, massive events like the current coronavirus epidemic also lead to a flood of new language to describe the very different reality we all find ourselves living in. In this post, I’ll look at just a few examples of new (and not so new) language that English speakers have been using over the past few months.
One of the few fun things about the strange world we’ve found ourselves in lately is the explosion of creative new words to describe life in lockdown. Corona– (from coronavirus) has become a prefix that can be added to all kind of words. So, you can describe the strange mix of emotional highs and lows of the past few months as a coronacoaster (corona + rollercoaster) or you can talk about the slightly awkward way we all dance around the pavement or supermarket aisles trying not to get too close to people as coronadodging (corona + dodge). Iso– (from isolation) is also being used as a prefix in new terms like isobaking (a popular activity during lockdown) and isolife. Other creative blends (when two words are mixed together) include quarantini (a cocktail, cf martini, drunk in quarantine) and one of my favourites is smizing or smiling with your eyes when you’re wearing a face mask – you need to think carefully about the sounds for that one (/aɪz/ > /smaɪz/). Below are a few more to think about and try to understand:
As well as completely new words, terms that were previously fairly uncommon have suddenly become part of our everyday vocabulary. Take the closely-related words lockdown, isolation and quarantine. Their use varies slightly in different English-speaking countries (read about the variations here).
But in the UK:
Lockdown is the set of restrictions imposed by government across the whole country or in specific areas to help control the spread of the virus, such as closing shops and restaurants, and encouraging people to stay at home. We talk about being in lockdown and there’s also the phrasal verb to lock down (Melbourne has been locked down.).
Isolation is used to talk about the situation where someone thinks they may have the virus so has to self-isolate, to stay at home and avoid contact with other people.
Quarantine is mostly being used in the UK to talk about people coming from (or returning from) other countries where infection rates are high. They have to go into quarantine or self-isolation for 14 days. We can also use quarantine as a verb (You have to quarantine for 14 days.).
Listening to daily news updates, lots of technical terms have suddenly become very familiar from science and medicine (epidemic, pandemic, ventilator, asymptomatic, immunity), as have expressions from statistics (R-rate, flatten the curve, a second spike, rolling average). From government guidelines, we’ve learnt about the importance of social distancing – in the UK that means keeping two metres apart from people who aren’t from your own household – and hand hygiene, which means frequent hand washing with soap or hand sanitiser. After a slow start, compared with other countries, people in the UK now have to wear face masks or other face coverings in shops, on public transport and in other indoor public spaces.
In the world of work, many people were furloughed (/ˈfɜːləʊd/) from their jobs, a term that most people had never heard before, which describes a situation where the government pays all or most of workers’ wages while their workplace is unable to operate. Others were encouraged to work from home – a phrase that quickly got shortened, especially on social media, to the acronym, WFH. Face-to-face meetings moved to video conferencing, often via the app, Zoom, leading to a range of Zoom– words: Zoom meetings, Zoom calls, Zoom fatigue (when you’re tired of so many video calls) and Zoombombing (when someone unexpectedly interrupts your Zoom call).
At this point (in August 2020) it’s impossible to predict how long the pandemic will continue to affect our lives and how long this new vocabulary will be used. I suspect that some words will disappear from use, that others will stay, and that most likely more new words will be coined to describe the new normal we find ourselves in. What’s certain is that linguists and lexicographers like me will continue to track the linguistic trends and add words as they become widespread over time to dictionaries.
Julie Moore is a freelance writer of English Language Teaching materials and a lexicographer working on learner’s dictionaries. She writes about language and language teaching on her blog: lexicoblog.blogspot.com and her website: juleswords.co.uk. She lives and works in Bristol, not far from Lucy.
social distancing: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/social-distancing