Lockdown, social distancing, quarantini: dissecting the 2020 pandemic lingo

Social distancing at Domino Park in the Williamsburg borough of Brooklyn, Monday, May 18, 2020, in New York.
Social distancing at Domino Park in the Williamsburg borough of Brooklyn, Monday, May 18, 2020, in New York. Copyright AP Photo/Kathy Willens
Copyright AP Photo/Kathy Willens
By Natalie HuetOliver Whitfield-Miocic
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From talk of flattening the curve to doomscrolling: how the coronavirus pandemic hijacked our vocabulary.


The COVID-19 crisis has caused devastating human loss and economic damage all around the world, but it also gave 2020 a whole new lexicon.

As the coronavirus pandemic unfurled, medical words, government jargon and conspiracy theory lingo became part of our daily conversations. There are too many to list here, but a few examples can help us look back on what became a most dramatic year.

You may remember public health experts stressing back in March the urgency of "flattening the curve" of coronavirus infections, to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Within weeks, as intensive care units started running out of beds and ventilators, hysteria and panic-buying set in, and it seemed that virtually the whole world suddenly went into lockdown.

Families and colleagues stayed in touch by videoconference – and messy Zoom meetings. Many found solace drinking a quarantini, a homemade cocktail perfectly compliant with social distancing rules.

"This always happens with social upheaval and major catastrophes, that a whole flood of new vocabulary comes into the language very suddenly and we have to deal with it," said Tony Thorne, a language consultant and slang expert at King's College London.

"We have to process it, understand it and then even start using it," he added, speaking on Euronews' breakfast show Good Morning Europe.

Just like the levels of coronavirus infections, this new vocabulary has attacked us in waves.

The first wave, said Thorne, was a surge in medical and scientific jargon – think ventilation, intubation, PPE (personal protective equipment), antigen tests and antibodies.

"The second wave was when ordinary people started to create their own language, to talk about their own new reality," he continued, citing words like doomscrolling (obsessively scrolling online through depressing news).

The most recent wave of new language, Thorne said, has been about new government restrictions, bubbles and tiers of lockdown in the UK.

Is this language here to stay?

That's difficult to predict. Thorne points out that a lot of words that emerged in wartime – blitz, kamikaze, genocide – have stayed with us for decades.

How long the pandemic lingo will linger largely depends on how long we’ll all keep having to talk about the health crisis and its consequences.

"I hope and I think that if the medical priorities disappear or subside, we just won't need a lot of this language anymore," Thorne said.

His preferred word for 2020 is "vaccine" – to end, he says, on a more positive note.

Watch highlights of the interview in the video player above.

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