Covid-19 and the English Language
How has the English Language changed?
It was the year of coronageddon. People locked down, nervously sipping quartantinis to pass the time. The reproduction rate remained perilously high and PPE stocks dwindled. Zoom fatigue set in as people listlessly imagined when things would return to normal—unless, of course, the covidiots spoil it for the rest of us.
Had this short paragraph been written before 2020, its meaning may have eluded a general audience. But the COVID-19 crisis has necessitated the emergence of a whole new lexicon to describe the unsettling reality of the worst global pandemic in over a century.
COVID-19 has changed the English language, but in what ways and how lasting will the effects be? These are the two critical questions that this article will attempt to answer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the English language. Terms from the fields of epidemiology, such as “contact tracing” or the “R-number” have entered the realm of everyday speech. We have witnessed an explosion of pandemic related neologisms: from Coviditios to describe those who defy social distancing rules, to coronapocalypse to describe the all-encompassing destruction and dislocation of the current period.
Despite this rapid shift in everyday speech, the Oxford English Dictionary has only added one new word into their dictionary: COVID-19. Other terms that have arrived in common parlance include previously obscure words that have taken on new significance; they include terms like flatten the curve, community spread and self-isolation.
An equally salient impact of COVID-19 has been the resource to metaphorical framing of the crisis. In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell memorably describes political writing as “…largely the defence of the indefensible.” Today, the impacts of the pandemic are couched in the language of duty and self-sacrifice. Governments across the world have framed our current predicament in the language of a battle, and war-time evocations are plentiful. Such language may have some utility in encouraging compliance with government mandates, e.g. to wear masks and practice social distancing. But there is an apparent limit to these analogies. Some front-line and key workers have pushed back against the framing of their efforts as heroic rather than the actions of dedicated professionals doing their best in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Militaristic language risks oversimplifying the realities of a pandemic—the preservation of life is the goal rather than its destruction.
What do these changes mean?
The language we use corresponds to the material conditions that give rise to it. Language becomes the way to rationalise a phenomenon like COVID-19 that impacts every aspect of political, social and economic relations. It does, therefore, seem likely that many of these words will fall out of common usage once the experiential reality of a global pandemic is brought under control. Trying to predict accurately which words will survive and which will fade out of use will not be straightforward.
The English language will bear the imprint of COVID-19, in one way or another for many generations to come. Linguistics suggest that those words or phrases that stick will be those that correspond to lasting behavioural change. If for example, 2020 has indeed brought about a home working revolution, abbreviations like WFH and behaviours like zoom bombing, will likely feature more prominently in the language from now on.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously observed that no man steps in the same river twice. Like the river, our language is in a constant state of change and flux. This year we have seen an acceleration in language change unlike anything in living memory, time will tell if we are to return once again to calmer waters.