Coronavirus and language

From curfew to Zoom dinner: how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted our language
Covid-19 has infected our language, too: over the past few months, many hundreds of words have become commonplace in the English language that describe our new reality in the times of Covid-19. And more are being added every day.

Vaccine tourism is an example from the more recent history with the coronavirus pandemic; others such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘covidiot’ (someone who blatantly disregards hygiene regulations and social distancing) have been making their way into our everyday parlance since the beginning of the pandemic. For other words, the pandemic has merely been grounds for shifting the primary meaning that is understood for a certain term: for many, an epicentre no longer has to do with earthquakes, a drive-in isn’t somewhere to order McNuggets and a wave is not something to be surfed.

Got Zoom fatigue and you’re tired of riding the coronacoaster?

Your vocabulary has surely also grown by a couple of ‘coronawords’ over the course of the pandemic. Or maybe you forbid yourself and the contacts in your ‘social bubble’ from even mentioning ‘C-words’. Because you just want to talk about something else – perhaps your upcoming holiday – when you manage to reserve an outdoor table at a restaurant. But there are new linguistic creations here, too, because – in these unprecedented times – you no longer feel overworked, but overzoomed, and still ready for a holiday. The weather forecasts aren’t bad, your doomscrolling has subsided and taken your coronasomnia with it. The summer sunshine has defeated the incidence rates.

If you are brave enough to get back on an aeroplane, you likely no longer fret about whether your nail clippers are allowed in your cabin bag, but rather about whether you have your vaccination passport with you or if your PCR test is recognised in foreign countries.

Even at the beach, your first thought comes down to naked facts: have you put on a few kilos and now have a ‘coronabod’, or are you fitter than ever thanks to your regular home workouts? But don’t worry – at least one thing hasn’t changed since the ‘Before Times’: with each fresh drink from the beach bar, you and those around you will feel your restrictions easing.

Coming together: new ‘coronacompounds’

Speaking of coming together: people aren’t the only things finding each other during the pandemic. Some numbers and letters take this quite literally: more and more seemingly meaningless numbers are joining forces with unspectacular words to create a duo with a healthy dose of self-importance.

You might think of phrases like standing two metres apart or the rule of six, but the number 19 has likely received the most notoriety – it used to be just a prime number, but now it is inextricably linked with Covid.

This couple is, however, open to making new connections: Covid-19 hotline, Covid-19 cohorts and Covid-19 detection dog, just to name a few.

Some newly created terms that found their way to one another during social distancing – window concerts and balcony applause, for instance – are losing their relevance as the R-value decreases. Those who can are now throwing parties for vaccinated people. The dress code is relaxed, but make sure to get your coronacut fixed by the barber. FFP-2 masks in a summery blue or pink determine the colour scheme. No superspreaders, anti-vaxxers or moronaviruses welcome.

Every crisis has its own language

It is no new phenomenon that extraordinary events have an impact on language and create new words. You might think of terms like the ‘raisin bombers’ in post-war Germany or how 9/11 became part of our vocabulary.

These new words serve two purposes: first, to give a name to the events and to help us understand them and, second, to process them as a society. In doing so, language can both exacerbate the negative feelings about a situation with terms like ‘corona dictatorship’ as well as assuage the tension with humorous terms such as ‘quarantine and chill’.

In time, some coronavirus-related terms will eventually disappear from our lexicon, but others will stick around and continue to be used, perhaps in a different context, maybe even after the origin of the term has been forgotten. For instance, maybe people will no longer avoid something ‘like the plague’, but rather avoid it ‘like the coronavirus’. Only time will tell.

Which corona-related word or saying – like 'Stay healthy!' – is now indispensable in your vocabulary?

Nadja Plaßmann

Nadja mag Kurzgeschichten und lange Spaziergänge. Sie schlägt gern Wurzeln und wünscht sich manchmal Flügel. Seit 2006 korrigiert und lektoriert sie bei Wieners und Wieners fremde Texte und verfasst wunderbare eigene.