How coronavirus is infecting our language

A few days ago, a friend sent me a message:

There’s a whole vocabulary that has come to the fore because of the events, words which you never think will apply to you: infection. Ventilator. ICU. Mild to moderate. Asymptomatic. Heavy droplets. And also some weird calls to action: stay at home, wash your hands, save lives, practise social distancing, self isolate, flatten the curve, clap for our carers. All fair enough but also quite shocking in a way, the kind of things you might expect to see on a Soviet propaganda poster but not here and now.

As a writer, I’m fascinated by the way that language changes constantly, and the way these changes reflect societies’ preoccupations and prevailing beliefs.

Broadly, these alterations tend to take two forms. There are the vocabulary-focused shifts, such as the ones my friend highlights above. Although these can occur by a sort of unspoken common consensus (as with the shift of the word ‘mortify’ from meaning ’embarrassed’ to ‘horrified’ in everyday discourse) they often arise in response to specific events or developments.

In recent decades, the internet has provided the most obvious example. Since the information superhighway (remember that?) opened for business in the 1990s, a whole raft of new terms have moved into, and sometimes out of, the lexicon: broadband, bandwidth, website and dongle among them. Some words from previous eras have also been dusted off and repurposed. (I imagine a timetraveller from the 1930s might be rather perplexed by our interpretation of the word ‘wireless’.)

The second category of changes has more to with the nuts and bolts of language: grammar. These are the sorts of shifts that you sometimes see people writing furious rants about, bewailing those who misuse Oxford commas, for example, or those who don’t understand the finer points of the subjunctive.

While I can sympathise with how jarring it can feel to see a rule broken, I tend to regard such pedantry as pointless. Language has never been static and where grammatical shifts become widespread, they are usually indicative of a need that the previous structures weren’t answering.

In the first two decades of the 21st century, during which, until a few weeks ago, life seemed to be speeding up, the primary need was for efficiency. With a huge percentage of the world’s communications being typed with thumbs (in 2018, humankind was sending around 65bn WhatsApp messages a day), few of us have had the patience for cumbersome formulations when quicker – albeit less elegant – alternatives are available. So, we have seen the proliferation of split infinitives, sentence fragments and hanging modifiers. While these are still generally regarded as wrong in formal English, I suspect some will creep into accepted usage over time.

Other changes have reflected shifts in attitudes. The rise of the singular pronoun ‘they’, for example, may indicate a better understanding of equality issues and the growing number of circumstances in which people prefer not to have to specify someone’s gender.

So what of Covid-19? How is this global pandemic infecting and reconfiguring our use of words?

Obviously, it’s too early to make definitive statements. However, here are a few things, in addition to the words and phrases my friend highlights above, that I’ve noticed in recent weeks:

  • The widespread deployment of active verbs to describe passive states. Examples include: ‘Stay safe’ and ‘keep well’. This is partly to do with the impulse to propagate the idea that we are all doing something heroic by staying in our houses so as to make us more compliant with government restrictions. But I think it also signifies the sense of impending disaster many of us feel. Faced with the prospect of losing friends and relatives to the disease, as well as the possibility that society may never be the same again, we no longer desire progress so much as stasis, the stopping of time and the maintenance of the status quo.
  • The increasingly paternalistic/schoolmasterly tone of government ministers. ‘I say this to the small minority of people who are breaking the rules or pushing the boundaries: you’re risking your own life and the lives of others and you’re making it harder for us all,’ health secretary Matt Hancock told us yesterday, sounding for all the world as though he were scolding a rabble of naughty children. This is a marked shift from the desperate slogans of the Brexit era, during which politicians with slim majorities bent and scraped, and did whatever they could to be seen to be honouring ‘the will of the people’.
  • The dusting off of wartime vocabulary. As mentioned in a previous post, there has been a rise in the use of phrases that recall the propaganda and speeches of the world wars. Again, the immediate reasons for this are obvious. It remains to be seen whether or not much of it will stick.

A notable exception to these observations, however, was the Queen’s rare address, broadcast last night. She avoided the schoolmasterly tone of many government communications and opted instead to thank her subjects. Rather than sticking to the present, she looked to the future: ‘better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again.’ And although there were war references – both in terms of her recollection of her first address to evacuees in 1940 and in her use of the phrase ‘We will meet again’, which recalls Vera Lynn’s famous Second World War hit (embedded at the top of this post) – these were personal and subtle, as opposed to bombastic. Indeed, she seemed at pains to keep nostalgia at arm’s length: ‘The pride in who we are is not part of our past, it defines our present and our future.’

In terms of its tone and the structures it employed, the speech might have been delivered at any point during the Queen’s reign. That is no doubt one of the reasons it has been warmly received in many quarters: in eschewing the words and fomulations that have embedded themselves into common discourse since the start of the pandemic, Her Majesty allowed those listening to feel a sense of timelessness and continuity. Strangely, for one so far removed from the daily life of average UK citizens, she spoke what felt like our language.

Published by Ann Morgan

I'm a UK-based author, editor and Royal Literary Fund fellow. My first book, 'Reading the World' (UK title) or 'The World Between Two Covers' (as it's known in the US), was inspired by my 2012 journey through a book from every country, which I recorded on ayearofreadingtheworld.com. My next two books are novels, 'Beside Myself' (Bloomsbury, 2016) and 'Crossing Over' (Audible, 2019).

26 thoughts on “How coronavirus is infecting our language

  1. Thank you for this interesting post.

    I’m not sure that “stay safe” and “keep well” are really new. I think we are hearing them more now because it is more often appropriate to say such a thing.

    Another term that has entered the public consciousness through the coronavirus pandemic is “PPE.” Some years ago I wrote a piece about this topic, but it didn’t have much impact at the time because nobody cared about PPE until about 5 minutes ago. Lately I have been seeing a lot of traffic to that post, driven by the new interest and awareness.

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  2. I am nobody but I am somebody in this world and you guys shot a know that Honeywell JP Morgan and a lot of bangs cut out last year in 2018 cuz they knew this was going to happen you look at what chemicals pnp’s handle poisons and toxins in the New Jersey area what all comes down to one thing money all the companies that separated from them and the guy that’s ahead of head Honeywell and they let it out cuz they knew that intergenic would make their company make lots of money even though JP Morgan says they gone down 35% you look at white 3in and Honeywell and all them make and they cut out just recently last year because that’s how long it’s been out and they use the trains look at it it all comes together you guys look at look look look it’s not going to go away it’s going to come back just I go over 30 days no it’s going to be a long time people are going to die from it because you can’t control it it’s in the air it goes up in the air and then settles back down so there’s a lot of shit going on that you guys don’t know of and break it down look it up you guys I’m telling you let it be known that pmp’s what they do and who they work for because you did start in New Jersey win over to China so they get the blame for it which saint to blame for it I know this everybody needs it get a check up on their brain all the rich people get richer off of this in the poor people get poor and they got bunkers we don’t want you look at the big big big picture here they use the train to the move it around so if it stopped in your town BNSFif it stopped in your your town then you guys got it just like us in California try to say that California started first that’s a lie start a new jersey made it look like it went to China and then came back here and it worsen and how did it get around by the trains and planes in automobiles which they have to do with EPA you guys get a right they knew what it would do be kind of got out they couldn’t control it look at all the air emissions and water missions they they need to make this coronavirus is the same elements they use to make sure that it don’t get out there and make a sick and die you going to say that epa is a superhero they know all about it they have a cure to self or else they wouldn’t not not be having a masks over their face right now today everybody should knowing that it’s out there to kill us at any moment look at the toxin set they they have to make sure that it doesn’t go in the air or water which has the paperwork on them look at toxins and environmental which they know already know about blame it on China are you play really happen

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  3. Very interesting! We went from encouraging young people to reduce social distance by actually going out and meeting people in the real world to increasing social distance and staying home; all this happened in the blink of an eye, so to say. Keeping track of how language changes to accommodate events is a very good thing to do – it will help us remember. Occasionally I lie down and look up at the sky wondering if the cosmos even notices these and the other changes on the planet. Self isolation sure makes us look out of strange windows!

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  4. I subscribe to Miriam Webster dictionary everyday as a learning tool on English as my second language. The way I see these words during Covid, I consider them as recycled thoughts similar to the song. I’m so glad to read your posts about infecting the English language.

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  5. What a wonderful post about words! One of my favorite things to talk about. You brought up some great points. I especially could relate to how I have now found myself saying “stay safe” to everyone. It is now something I end all my professional emails with and I have found I now say it to all my friends and family. Thank you for bringing up such interesting points!

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  6. I spent 27 years in law enforcement and a large chunk of my adult life in the military, both active and reserves. I’ve heard “be safe” dozens of times a day, but it was always in the context of my chosen professions. Until I read your post, I hadn’t realized the phrase had worked it’s way into the rest of the nation’s vocabulary. When you mentioned that, I realized that two people said that to me when I went to my medical facility to pick up a prescription and a third when I stopped at my local gas station. Excellent insight and something I will pay more attention to. Well written and thank you for posting.

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  7. A lot of words indeed and it is just April!

    By the way, watching the queen’s speech makes me want to learn more about the british use of words. I find them more professional when used, more calming even at a time of crisis. 😁

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  8. I have always viewed written and spoken words as something that is the same and yet different. An example would be if speaking Stay Safe!, stay safe, Stay safe, stay Safe

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    1. …Sorry, hit the button a little to soon… etc. Intonation in written language for me as well as emphasis or even to elicit a physical feeling or emotive response is used by “misusing” grammar rules.

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  9. Very thought-provoking Ann. I wonder if all those imperatives don’t come from the inescapable world of advertising, though? I love the way the Japanese (even when using English) instead of saying ‘Wash your hands!’ will say ‘Let’s wash our hands!’ It sounds so much more friendly, respectful and inclusive; being told what to do puts me off.
    Maybe some new vocabulary will go viral (sorry!) too. The other day I was studying some Arrernte (the Aboriginal language spoken around Uluru/Ayers Rock in central Australia) and came across its word for ‘social distancing’, ikirrentye (pronounced something like ‘icky wrench’, if you can picture a greasy American spanner). Traditionally Aborigines had to practice avoidance strategies (including in speech) to certain categories such as their mothers-in-law (very wise!) Maybe a more convenient word for ‘social distancing’ to use in English too?

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    1. Very interesting, thanks! I’m sure you’re right that advertising plays its part in the use of imperatives but it’s more the passivity of the things that are being presented as positive actions that interests me. Trying to make inaction sound heroic is a tricky sell, even for sloganeers. Sounds as though we could all learn something from the Aboriginees!

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