COVID-19 changes also our vocabulary, new lexicon emerges

In pandemic, word definitions shift and new lexicon emerges, an AP team reported. Newscasts bring word of “hot zones” and “lockdowns.” Conversations are littered with talk of “quarantines” and “isolation.” Leaders urge “social distancing” and “sheltering in place” and “flattening the curve.” In an instant, our vocabulary has changed — just like everything else.

Now people turning to online dictionaries are parsing the difference between epidemics and pandemics, ventilators and respirators, seeking some black-and-white answers in the face of total uncertainty. “Words matter,” says John Kelly, a senior research editor at, cited by AP. “They provide comfort and order amid chaos. They provide solidarity in an age of social distancing.”

Wartime metaphors are invading the lexicon of the coronavirus pandemic. The US President Donald Trump is now touting himself as “a wartime president” leading the fight against the virus. French President Emmanuel Macron has bluntly declared: “We are at war.” Around the world, words typically used in relation to nuclear fallout, active shooters, deadly storms and war are now being deployed to discuss disease.

John Baugh, a linguist at Washington University in St. Louis, says doctors are desperate to shake the public to attention, using metaphors they think can convey the seriousness of the problem. Politicians may be doing the same — or may be trying to capitalize on catastrophe.

After the virus gripped China, onlookers saw a “lockdown” at the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan, with public transit coming to a halt, monitors enforcing orders keeping people inside and officials going door-to-door searching for infected people to be forced into quarantines. As COVID-19 moved west, though, the meaning of such terms has morphed, and leaders’ definitions of disaster jargon has been as varied as the public’s interpretations.

“People are using different terms somewhat interchangeably,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, an expert on disaster preparedness and public health at Columbia University. The tug-of-war over terminology echoes the patchwork of measures that state and local governments have taken, he said.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson cringes when scientists toss out statements of “morbidity” and “mortality” in the same breath, when public officials warn of “asymptomatic” people posing a threat, and when news conferences are peppered with words like “vector” and “transmission.” “They are incomprehensible to many in the public,” said the University of Pennsylvania communications expert, who co-edited “The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication.” “Public health officials,” she said, “need to translate their technical language into intelligible language.”

That means saying something like “not showing any symptoms” instead of “asymptomatic,” using simple verbs like “spread” versus “transmit,” and opting for the clarity of “hand-washing” over “hygiene.”

“We now have a name for the disease,” the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced on 11 February, declaring it COVID-19. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and no obivous acronym like AIDS or SARS or MERS has arisen as a replacement. Seeking to rebrand, Trump and his allies have taken to calling it the “Chinese virus,” which many consider racist.

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” says Dr. Scott Ratzan, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Health Communications. “It’s either COVID-19 or just the coronavirus.”

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