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Word gets around: English professor Felicia Steele pinpoints how the pandemic has changed our vocabulary.

Most of us were blissfully unaware of social distancing or flattening the curve before last year; we hadn’t made a curbside pickup much less masked up. In 2020 however, all of those terms were part of a growing pandemic lexicon that even a Covidiot couldn’t ignore.

Students in LNG 202: The Structure and History of the English Language recently submitted Covidiot to the American Dialect Society’s word-of-the-year contest. The epithet, of course, derives from COVID-19, the dangerous disease caused by the virus. 

“Covidiot suggested their despair and frustration with someone who stubbornly refused to wear a mask or acknowledge reality of the pandemic,” says Felicia Steele, an associate professor of English whose research focuses on historical linguistics, specifically auxiliary verb changes over time.

Steele has been watching closely as the concept of social distance has morphed into a verb.

“The phrase itself has been used in public health discourse since the 1990s as a descriptive noun; it’s only in the last eight months that it’s taken off as a verb,” she says, observing that the original meaning of emphasizing isolation or apartness has been somewhat subverted. “I hear people say ‘we can social distance’ as a synonym for socializing.”

Steele has been tracking the phrase in a Coronavirus Corpus, a gathering of commentary from online sources in 20 different English-speaking countries that linguists use to study how usage reflects societal change. Social distancing as a verb began in March 2020, Steele found. Already by mid-April, those who care about words began complaining that the phrase was a clumsy and imprecise way to implore people to stay at least six feet apart. Nevertheless, the phrase persisted.

Not surprisingly, Steele found the pandemic has led to a resurgence for the word quarantine, which dates to the 14th Century when ships and their crews were held in port to contain the Bubonic plague. More medical terminology also has infiltrated general discourse as familiarity grows with infectious disease transmission and vaccine production.

Steele found a great deal of regional variation in how people talked about the pandemic and its fallout. Telemedicine and other words to describe remote socializing, work, and learning (think Zoom University), have entered the lexicon in big ways. And some of these words are likely to last as the current health emergency prompts enduring changes.

That vote for 2020 innovative word of the year — usually an occasion for lexicographers, linguists and other “word nerds” to party in Manhattan — was virtual, just like the semester, which posed special challenges, said Steele.

“I know how hard it is for my students because I know it’s been hard for me,” she lamented, perhaps hinting at a touch of yet another 2020 phrase: pandemic fatigue.

Note: For those inquiring minds, The American Dialect Society’s 2020 Word of the Year was Covid.


— Patricia Alex

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