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The language of a pandemic
June 26, 2020
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by Ivan Raconteur

As a writer and editor, I am fascinated by the way language is constantly changing.

Some people might look at dictionaries or textbooks and assume that language is static, that we can simply learn a collection of words, and some day we’ll be done. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not only are new words being added all the time as people attempt to describe the world around them – the meaning of words can change over time. Still other words fall out of favor and disappear from common use.

Often, a significant shared experience can result in the expansion of our vocabularies. Wars, for example, can propel new words into our collective lexicon.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has launched new words and brought others to the forefront as we discussed the situation in which we found ourselves.

The word pandemic is certainly not new, but in view of current events, it has worked its way into more conversations and news stories than in a “normal” year. The same is true for self-quarantine (or self-isolate), furlough, sanitizer, asymptomatic, respirator, and epidemiologist.

In 2020, a number of expressions have entered our consciousness, such as “social distancing,” “remote learning,” “stay-at-home order,” “PPE” (personal protective equipment), “WFH” (working from home), and “flatten the curve.”

Not surprisingly, terms specific to the situation have gained popularity, such as coronavirus, COVID-19, and N95 masks.

Many people speak knowledgeably about Zoom, Google Meet, or Skype, even though they may never heard of them before this year. Remote meetings and new ways of interacting with family members have become commonplace.

It remains to be seen how many of these newly-popular practices will stick once the current pandemic has passed. It might well be that video meetings and working from home, for example, will continue to be used in some businesses simply because they offer advantages.

Only time will tell which words and phrases will remain in vogue, and which will fade into obscurity.

One thing is certain. Language is alive, and it will continue to evolve and change to help us talk and write about whatever is going on in our lives.


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