English and Covid: A Language Meets a Pandemic

A Language Meets a Pandemic

By Dr. Roger Kreuz

How has Covid changed the English language? Words associated with previous epidemics have resurfaced and a variety of technical terms have entered into common usage. In addition, entirely new words have been coined that reflect the disruptions caused by the pandemic. These processes illustrate the dynamic nature of language change. 

The worldwide Covid-19 pandemic has created massive social and economic disruption for nearly two years. But what effect has it had on language? Some researchers have claimed that its impact has been great, bringing “an explosion of new words” into English.i In contrast, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have asserted that changes wrought by Covid largely reflect the resurgence of terminology associated with previous pandemics.ii As it turns out, both of these characterizations are correct.

Just as the human body has immunological memory cells, the English language bears traces of past epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, and H1N1 influenza. The current health crisis has brought many of these terms to the fore once again. And if a term has dropped out of common use for many years, it may certainly seem new to present-day speakers of the language. 

One of the oldest pandemic-related words is quarantine. This originally referred to the forty-day period of isolation imposed on ships’ crews and goods during prior epidemics. The term first appeared in English in the 1640s and became a permanent resident in the language, evolving to mean any sort of enforced and prolonged period of isolation. Extended and figurative senses of the word are now employed by groups as diverse as politicians, computer programmers, and planetary scientists. 

Most pandemic-related terms, however, are episodic in their usage. These trends can be identified by searching for disease-related terms appearing in stories published by the New York Times (NYT). Their database of articles serves as a useful proxy for determining when a given term is in vogue. In addition, it is possible to determine exactly when a new word or usage has made its appearance. Unlike the citations in a dictionary, which provide the year that a term was first seen in print and perhaps some illustrative examples, news stories allow researchers to track word usage as the language changes on a day-by-day basis. 

In the fall of 2014, it returns once again, appearing in several articles about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and in 2016 in connection with the Zika virus.

Consider contact tracing, a term that appears frequently in media stories from the spring of 2020. It might seem like a new concept, but the NYT archive reveals that it has been in the news for over fifty years. It first appears in a March 1970 story about venereal disease, and then recurs frequently in articles published during the late 1980s, during the height of the U.S. HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the fall of 2014, it returns once again, appearing in several articles about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and in 2016 in connection with the Zika virus. Contact tracing then went underground until February 2020, as cases of Covid began to turn up on cruise ships and in cities around the world. 

References to social distancing have followed a similar trajectory. The phrase appeared in the NYT in 2006, in reference to avian flu mitigation measures, and in 2007 in an article about influenza pandemic guidelines. It returned in 2009 in stories about health measures triggered by the outbreak of swine flu. Social distancing then largely disappeared for a decade, until it emerged once again at the beginning of the Covid pandemic. And terms like self-quarantinecommunity transmission, and community spread appear episodically as well, in stories about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, swine flu in 2009, and Ebola in 2014. 

Even the term coronavirus itself isn’t new. This family of viruses, including some strains that cause the common cold, was first identified in the 1930s. They were so named in 1967 due to spiky projections, resembling a crown, on their surfaces. The word first appeared in the NYT in an August 1991 article about pet immunizations, and then repeatedly during the spring of 2003 as cases of SARS were diagnosed in North America. A decade later, an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) brought this family of viruses into the news and public awareness once again. 

How about super spreader? This phrase first appears in a 1995 NYT article about tuberculosis, and then in 1997 in connection with HIV/AIDS. As with other such terms, it reappears periodically in connection with the SARS, Ebola, and MERS epidemics. Clearly, several terms associated with Covid have been part of the language for a long time. It is as if such words are kept in mothballs—rarely used in normal times but brought out of storage when the need arises. 

A second linguistic trend driven by Covid has been the migration of specialized terms, previously familiar only to physicians and epidemiologists, into common usage. These include the names of antiviral drugs, such as Dexamethasone and Hydroxychloroquine, and vocabulary from epidemiology, such as reproduction number or herd immunity. Few people knew what fomites were until the early weeks of the Covid pandemic, when there was widespread concern about contracting an infection from the surfaces of object. The New York Times, however, had published articles mentioning fomites in 1991, in reference to telephone receivers, and in 1998, as part of a story about biological weapons. 

Other terms, such as flatten the curve, have undergone significant shifts in meaning over time. The phrase first appears in NYT reporting from 1974, in an article about the ups and downs of the economy. Five years later, it can be found in a story about meat prices and inflation. It doesn’t reappear until 1992, in a piece about credit markets. And a decade after that, in 2002, it was invoked as a way to mitigate climate change. Flatten the curve doesn’t appear in its current form, as a method of slowing viral transmission, until March of 2020. 

The phrase first appears in NYT reporting from 1974, in an article about the ups and downs of the economy. Five years later, it can be found in a story about meat prices and inflation.

Shelter in place is another concept that has evolved with time. The earliest usage of the phrase in the NYT was in 1987, in connection with evacuation drills for townspeople living near a chemical plant in West Virginia. It appears again after 9/11, as a strategy for protecting commuters from biological or chemical agents, and then in stories about nuclear plant safety, school shootings, and hurricanes. It wasn’t employed in connection with disease until a November 2018 story entitled “How to Survive a Flu Pandemic.” 

Lockdown has undergone an even greater transformation, at least in the U.S. Starting in the mid-1970s, the term was used to refer to controlling inmates in prisons. By 1999, it was employed in the context of “active shooter” drills in schools. Two years later, it was used to refer to the closure of New York airports due to 9/11. And twenty years after that, it became the shorthand for stay-at-home orders issued to blunt the first wave of the Covid pandemic. 

And if you think the elbow bump is the product of the current pandemic, you’re about three epidemics behind the times. Several NYT articles from February 2006 promoted this safer, contact-free replacement for the handshake as a way of mitigating the spread of avian flu. It was mentioned again in a November 2014 article discussing the Ebola outbreak in Mali, and then in January 2015 as a way of coping with a particularly nasty cold and flu season. 

The primary effect of the Covid pandemic on English, however, has been the creation of blends—new words or phrases that are formed by combining parts of other words. Just as “breakfast” and “lunch” begat “brunch,” Covid-related blends were coined to refer to things like the disruption of daily routines or to undesirable side effects of technology. 

For many, the abrupt shift to working from home created temporal disorientation: after a while, every day seemed like the one before. In an April 2020 NYT interview with Taylor Mac, the playwright and performance artist bemoaned how the days had been running together. He quipped “It’s Blursday, in the month of Macramé.” By November, Blursday had become a contender for Oxford Language’s annual Word of the Year.iii 

During lockdown, many turned to alcohol to help numb their feelings of anxiety and dread. Between March and September of 2020, U.S., liquor store sales rose by 20% compared to 2019.iv And right on cue, the term quarantini appeared in the NYT in March, in an article entitled “How to Have a Successful Virtual Happy Hour.” Even this word blend wasn’t a product of Covid: quarantini had appeared in the NYT eight months earlier, in reference to cocktail recipes included in episodes of a podcast series about diseases. And the closing of bars during lockdowns led to the phenomenon of drinking while strolling: the walktail, which the NYT described in May 2020. 

As remote meetings for work and school became the norm, the unwanted and undesirable aspects of such technology quickly became apparent. A March 2020 article defined Zoombombing as the high-tech equivalent of photobombing—itself a blend from an earlier era. And it didn’t take long for people to tire of remote meetings: an article from the end of the same month was the first to mention the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue

Even terms for facial coverings have provided fodder for blends. A NYT article from May 2020 was the first to mention that extended periods of mask wearing could cause or exacerbate acne, thus making official the phenomenon of maskne. And maskhole, a coinage from August 2021, provided a way of describing those who eschew facial coverings altogether. Another term of derision made its appearance in a NYT story from April 2020, in a story about a public service announcement featuring Larry David: a plea that covidiots should stay home during lockdown. 

Technology has made it possible to swipe through long lists of news articles on a phone or tablet. And a blended term for this, doomscrolling, first appeared in the NYT in May of 2020. According to Google Trends, searches for doomscrolling peaked in early November of 2020, at a time when Covid infection rates were climbing rapidly in many places. And after another uptick in early January 2021—the peak of that year’s pandemic in the U.S.—searches for the neologism have fallen steadily. 

Does this mean that terms like doomscrolling are destined to join 23 skiddoo and the cat’s pajamas on the ash heap of linguistic history, along with countless other ephemeral slang expressions? Such things are hard to predict. These Covid-related terms may come to be associated with a specific period of time, the early 2020s, in much the same way that groovy evokes the late 1960s. Or they may simply fade into the linguistic background until recalled for duty during another worldwide crisis. Languages, like viruses, mutate to adapt to their hosts, and their rapid evolution during pandemics provides a useful reminder of that fact. 

About the Author

Dr. Roger KreuzDr. Roger Kreuz is an Associate Dean and Professor of Psychology at the University of Memphis. He earned his doctorate at Princeton University. He is the author of four popular books on language and communication published by the MIT press. They have been translated into Korean, Russian, Turkish, Japanese, and Chinese. 


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.