Musings on the linguistic aspects of COVID-19

Written by Professor Joshua S Davis, ASCOT Coordinating Principal Investigator

Nearly every aspect of our daily lives has been changed in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic. One area which has been highly affected, but which many people don’t consciously notice, is our use of language. COVID-19 has led to new words being coined, and old words (like drugs) being “repurposed” (even the word repurposed was just repurposed by me in the previous sentence!).

Let’s start with the word COVID-19. It’s not really a word, it’s an acronym. And not even a proper one (what does the “O” stand for?). Yet despite this, I think it is a front runner for “Word of the Year” competitions for 2020. None of us had ever heard of or used this word six months ago. Yet most of us have said, read, thought or written it multiple times every day since its coinage. It’s also been turned into a verb (“This research project is running behind, as it got COVIDed”) and has been personified (“COVID is such a bastard!”). Finally, in line with the flourishing of human creativity during home isolation, multiple songs have had “COVID” substituted into their lyrics. Some examples: Instead of “Come on Eileen, oh I swear I’ll be clean” we have “COVID-19, oh I’m in quarantine”. For the Lego movie song “Everything is Awesome; everything is cool when you’re part of a team”, we have “Everything is cancelled; everything is cancelled due to COVID-19”. I’m sure you could name some others, and if you’re interested, there are more examples here.

The best use of the word I’ve heard recently was relayed to me by Professor Derek Angus, a critical care specialist and researcher based in Pittsburgh, USA. He explained that in the US, there is a term for the 15 pounds of weight gain that college students usually experience during their first year, where they tend to drink too much alcohol and eat less healthily: “The Fresher 15”.

Professor Angus’ friend confessed to him that, “Man with all this extra drinking at home, I don’t have the Fresher 15, I’ve got the COVID-19!” Something I’m sure many of us can relate to.

Another word (or phrase in this case) that has risen from obscurity to fame is “social distancing”. Let’s deconstruct this for a moment. “To distance” is a vowel. “Distancing” is a gerund (a noun formed from the continuous present participle of a verb). In this phrase, “social” is an adjective. So the phrase “social distancing” is a gerund qualified by an adjective.

However, this phrase is also used in many different ways. It has begun to emerge as an intransitive verb (i.e. a verb without an object), as in: “Do you think we’ll still have to social distance next year?” or as an adjectival phrase, “Let’s hold a socially distanced face to face meeting”.

Are these uses wrong? I would argue that they are not, as there is no right and wrong in the context of language which is rapidly evolving. Language evolves in response to external pressures, just as organisms do, and the COVID-19 pandemic is arguably a major pressure point on linguistic evolution.

Last week, the federal Department of Health changed the phrase “social distancing” to “physical distancing” in their main public health guideline on COVID-19. Why did they do this? I don’t know, but I am guessing it relates to the potential pejorative connotations and associations of the phrase “social distancing”: loneliness, a lack of societal cohesion, being “antisocial”.

The phrase “physical distancing”, however, is problematic in this context – it refers to putting distance between oneself and something else, be it an object or a person. “Physical distancing” could apply to staying away from the edge of a cliff, or a hot oven. We should call it what it is: maintaining distance from other humans, i.e. social distancing.

So, take a moment to think about new words, phrases or uses you hear and read every day, and marvel at the inventiveness and flexibility of human communication. Who knows, maybe “ASCOT” will become a widely known neologism due to COVID-19?!