Health Advice



Coronaspeak has gone viral, and the English language may never be the same

By Marie McCullough, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

This weekend, I'm having quarantinis with my quaranteam. It will be nice to be together in person, since we all have Zoom fatigue. We'll meet outdoors, so no need for PPE, but we'll still social distance. After all, we aren't covidiots, and we sure don't want a second wave. If we have to lock down to flatten the curve again, it would be a coronapocalypse.

A year ago, that paragraph would have been unintelligible. Now, it's as clear as a plexiglass shield.

The eight-month-old pandemic has had such a huge impact on the English language that editors of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary have so far issued two special updates to document it. The Canadian government has compiled a pandemic glossary, from antigen to zoonosis. And King's College London slang specialist Tony Thorne has a Lockdown Lexicon.

Because of a microscopic new germ, our daily speech is now full of medical and epidemiological jargon such as "viral load" and "contact tracing." "No mask, no entry" warnings are as ubiquitous as "No turn on red" signs.

We are also using language to relieve the awfulness of pandemic life, embracing slang, puns, catchphrases, acronyms, memes, and goofy new words that blend the sounds and meanings of existing words.

"This process isn't new. What is different is the scale of it," said Andrea Beltrama, a sociolinguist at the University of Pennsylvania. "This is a social, medical, psychological, political and economic situation that affects us around the globe. It affects fun, work, relationships. We have a clear snapshot of how language is shaped."


Will the vernacular of the pandemic disappear when normalcy (hopefully) returns?

"It will be interesting to look back in 20 years to see what stuck and what didn't," Beltrama said. "Making a word part of the lexicon is a big step toward normalizing a completely abnormal situation."

In February, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted: "Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!"

By Memorial Day, he and other top public health officials were tweeting a very different, but still muddled, message: a mask won't protect you from inhaling the virus, but wear one anyway to protect other people from you in case you're infected but don't know it.


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