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How 'the rona' — ahem, coronavirus — is changing our everyday vocabulary

John Wilkens, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Health & Fitness

Four months ago, as the new year neared, the only people in America who regularly used the phrase "social distancing" were epidemiologists.

Listen to us now.

In times of crisis -- world wars, natural disasters, financial collapses -- words and phrases crop up to form a shared language about what we're all going through. So too the coronavirus pandemic.

"My colleagues (in the American Dialect Society) have been feverishly writing down everything we might want to nominate for Word of the Year when the vote is taken next January," said Grant Barrett, co-host of the San Diego-based public radio show "A Way with Words."

He mentioned several possibilities: "lockdown," "self-quarantine," "Wuhan," and "rona" (shorthand for coronavirus, as in: "Stay away from him. He's got the rona").

And, of course, "social distancing," which Barrett and his radio co-host, Martha Barnette, believe probably has the best chance of remaining part of our regular lingo even after the virus vanishes.

 

"Look how fast it's become a thing everybody is talking about," Barnette said. "Those are the ones that last, the ones that arrive almost without trying and are on everyone's lips. It's not the clever coinage that lasts."

So, nice try "Quarantini" (a cocktail made while stuck at home with whatever's on hand). According to word mavens, your days are probably numbered.

War and wordsJust what "social distancing" will mean to future generations, though, remains to be seen. In an earlier form, "social distance" was the degree of rejection or acceptance between individuals, usually based on class, race, gender or ethnicity. A runaway virus had nothing to do with it.

Richard Lederer, author of a regular San Diego Union-Tribune column about language, said "quarantine" has morphed across time, too. Its original definition pertained to the 40 days a widow was allowed to remain in her deceased husband's home before it could be seized by debtors.

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