In May I addressed some of the emerging linguistic questions surrounding the novel coronavirus. Now, a few months into this new non-normal, I find myself reflecting on the ways we learn, adapt, and create language to fit new realities. I see this foremost in the widespread use of words or phrases that were once niche. Six months into this disaster we are clear on how a pandemic differs from an epidemic, we can rattle off what PPE stands for, and we all know what an N-95 mask is. I am not certain if infectious disease specialists used the exact phrase “flatten the curve” prior to Covid-19, but I am pretty sure they were the only ones familiar with the concept. Now we are all armchair epidemiologists and can speak at length about percent positive rates, exponential growth, and herd immunity.
The virus has upended all aspects of our lives, and our language reflects that. Prior to January or February, I am not sure anyone had ever used the phrase “social distancing.” Now we barely go a day without hearing or saying it. Other words have emerged to meet the needs of the current situation. “Lockdown” has a particular meaning in 2020. “Elbow bumps” are expected in lieu of shaking hands. Groups form “social bubbles” or “pods” for connection and schooling. I personally prefer bubble and have even found myself using “bubble” as a verb. (We’re bubbling with our neighbors, but we don’t visit anyone else without masks on.) Others describe their bubble as a “quaranteam.”
Technology has played a huge role in our changed lives. Is there anyone left who hasn’t been on a Zoom call? Once used exclusively for business, video conferencing has taken over our lives. Almost all school children in the country switched to “remote schooling” in the spring and used these platforms for classes. Like most families, we have used meeting platforms for birthday parties, Girl Scouts meetings, exercise classes, and game nights. We even “attended” a family wedding through Zoom. And our language adapts along with us. Most of us know exactly what someone means when they say, “I was attending a virtual happy hour when we got Zoom-bombed!” This sentence would not have made any sense in December 2019.
Plenty of other slang terms have emerged, many reflecting the grim humor we often adopt to get through frightening times. There is a great article in The Atlantic on the phenomenon of humor about the pandemic. When it comes to using humorous or disarming language, I find it comforting to refer to Covid-19 merely as The ‘Rona. (e.g., “Did you hear that cases of The ‘Rona are up in the next county over?”) There have been memes disparaging “covidiots,” and cases of “covidorce” are up among unhappy couples. I also saw many a reference to the “quarantine 15,” weight gain similar to the freshman 15 that many people put on in weeks or months of isolation and, often, baking. There is even a great new term for the phenomenon of endlessly reading about and obsessing over the latest dark news: doomscrolling.
Hospitals are anticipating a bumper crop of babies to arrive about 9 months after the lockdown started. Those babies already have a nickname: coronials. It may turn out that the entire next generation will be dubbed such. There is no doubt that the pandemic will have long-lasting and far-reaching effects on the world. Children born in 2020 and beyond will enter a changed world. As for our language, only time will tell which terms and phrases will stick around. Will Zoom remain the go-to proprietary eponym for video conferencing? Will we call early 2020 the time of the lockdown? The shutdown? The quarantine? Will we tend to refer to the disease as Covid-19, the novel coronavirus, corona, or something else? All that is certain is that our language will continue to adapt and adjust over time. And while some of the terms will bring about feelings of melancholy and others will make us chuckle, they all play an important role in helping us make sense of a rapidly changing world and communicating information and emotion about it.
Tip of the Month: Split Infinitives
Were you taught in school to never split an infinitive? (See what I did there?) The infinitive form of a verb is the unconjugated “to” form (e.g., to see, to be, to split). Historically, grammarians have insisted that it is incorrect to place a modifier between the to and the verb in an infinitive. When I wrote “to never split,” I split the infinitive. Good news: splitting an infinitive is now permissible. In many cases you do not need to split it. If placing a modifier either before or after the infinitive does not sound awkward or cause confusion, it is still probably a good idea to keep the infinitive intact. (“to write quickly” rather than “to quickly write.”) In other instances, however, there could be confusion as to your meaning if you do not split the infinitive. For example, if you wrote: “She is unable fully to appreciate the situation,” the “fully” might apply to either unable or appreciate. It would be better to write: “She is unable to fully appreciate the situation.” You may also just prefer the way the split infinitive sounds. In Star Trek, the crew plan “to boldly go” where no man has gone before. The infinitive “to go” is split, and I don’t think we would want it any other way.