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A common vocabulary for an uncommon year

There’s no saying which words will survive the covid-19 pandemic. Zoombombing might outlive Zoom, Quarantini might become a retro cocktail in a fancy bar in a post-vaccine world

Words have also changed with context, become coronised.
Words have also changed with context, become coronised.

What’s Bengali for mask?” a friend asked me.

Mukhosh,” I replied, though that usually refers to the kind of masks worn at Chhau tribal dances and Halloween parties.

“Usually that’s true but this year the Bengali for mask is mask,” he said. “Though occasionally it becomes maks.” Bengalis sometimes inadvertently flip their consonants around.

In a year of pandemic, the English word “mask” has snuck into Bengali and Hindi and Kannada and many other Indian languages alongside “sanitiser” and “social distancing”. In March, as India went into lockdown, the organisation Adivasi Lives Matter produced information sheets on corona precautions in a slew of languages like Bengali, Hindi, Odiya, Nepali, Kodava. While the precautions and guidelines were translated, the word “mask” jumped intact from language to language. Perhaps it’s linguistic recognition of the fact that the pandemic has thrown us all into the same boat and these words are part of the common currency of our new shared reality. It’s driving home the point that if we all need to be on the same page, we need the same vocabulary.

In April, the Japanese politician, Taro Kono, had tweeted that the pandemic response was using too many foreign words, or what they called “loan words”, such as “lockdown”. But the writer Akihiko Reizei reasoned in Newsweek Japan that the foreign words were appropriate because they conveyed a “sense of crisis”, exceptional words for an exceptional time.

In 2019, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) had anointed “climate emergency” as the word of the year. In a big shift from tradition, the OED said 2020 is a “year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one word”. Instead, they noticed “seismic shifts in language data and precipitous frequency rises in new coinage”. For example, the use of the word “pandemic” has gone up 57,000% this year.

It’s not that the words are all new. Most were just granted a new lease of life. Self-quarantined was used long ago to describe the English village of Eyam, which cut itself off from the rest of the country in 1666 to ensure the bubonic plague didn’t spread beyond its boundaries.

It had arrived via a bundle of flea-infested cloth from London; one woman lost six children and her husband in just one week. Food would be left for the villagers to collect at a boundary marked with stones; it exists to this day. The coins they used for the food and supplies were disinfected with vinegar. It is estimated that only a third to a quarter of the village’s population survived. In a time when the vocabulary around covid-19 has been all about war and defeating it, when masks are part of a specious argument about personal liberty, there is something haunting about this little village’s act of self-quarantine as valiant self-sacrifice.

Words have also changed with context, become coronised. Katherine Connor Martin, the head of product for Oxford Languages, the company that publishes the OED, told The New York Times that at one time the words that appeared most often with a word like “remote” were “village”, “control” or “island”. In 2020, it was all about “remote learning” and “remote working”. The World Health Organization (WHO) pushed for “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing” because it wanted people to stay connected but the former never displaced the latter, as if our minds could just not comprehend how to come together by staying apart. And India probably single-handedly has turned “unlock” from a simple word we all understood to one that has gained five layers of complexity that no one fully comprehends. There was a point when we were in Lockdown X.0 and Unlock Y.0 simultaneously, a state of being that even the mythological Trishanku suspended between worlds would not fully understand.

The Collins dictionary chose “lockdown” as its word of the year but the OED is right. Rather than a word of the year, we have a word cloud which includes not just covid-19 (technically, the only bona fide new OED word 2020 has produced ) and corona (a word that has actually been around since the 1960s) but also “lockdown”, “shelter in place”, “unmute”, “vaccine”. It is a little covid dictionary of its own with medical terms (PPE, N-95), science (zoonotic), technology (Zoom), lifestyle acronyms (WFH ) and even insults (covidiot) and food fads (Dalgona coffee). It even comes with colourful regional variants, proof in some ways of the resilience of the human spirit. Queer and black communities camped Corona into Miss Rona. Australian slang turned quarantine into quaz and sanitiser into sanny. Germany, which loves its compound words, came up with Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien, or orgies of endless discussion about reopening.

It seems strange to think that covid-19 was not even in our vocabulary till the WHO spelt it out on 11 February. Other words have entered the dictionary via epidemics—HIV, Spanish flu, Ebola. It’s the speed of change that is astonishing this time, rivalling the speed of the pandemic itself. But what’s striking is also the seriousness with which covid-19 was accepted. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic started spreading, then US president Ronald Reagan’s press secretary was asked about the “gay plague” at a briefing. For him, it was the subject of jokes. “I don’t have it. Do you?” the press secretary asked the journalist amidst titters. It took Reagan five years to even say the word AIDS in public. In contrast, covid was in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary in one month. It was added to the OED outside the usual publication cycle, in an unscheduled update.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were fast-tracked into becoming amateur epidemiologists. When India went into lockdown in March, I remember being confused about whether to use “covid-19” or coronavirus in my copy. Now, as the year ends, the epidemiological term “R number” rolls off our tongues effortlessly as part of (Zoom) cocktail party chatter.

Everyone has favourite and pet peeves in our new vocabulary. “‘Community spread’ may be my least favorite on the COVID-19 vocabulary list,” writes Karen Russell in The New Yorker. “It makes me picture a local theatre company with terrible British accents sneezing onto the audience. Nudists rolling like seals on checkered picnic blankets.” I cannot stand the “new normal” with its “five layers of safety” because it has become corporate-speak for bland, meaningless reassurance. And really, let us not pretend there is anything normal about sitting in the middle seat of economy class with a mask, a plastic visor and a PPE-esque shroud around you.

Great events, especially war and pestilence, always cast a linguistic shadow. 9/11 gave us Ground Zero. AIDS brought Patient Zero and T-cells into the mainstream. The general purpose (GP) vehicles of World War II became jeep. The wars of Afghanistan and Iraq made “homeland” a designation for the US, a legacy that got imprinted into the television series of the same name. Long after the dust of those events had settled, those words remain with us.

There’s no saying which words will survive the covid-19 pandemic. Zoombombing might outlive Zoom, Quarantini might become a retro cocktail in a fancy bar in a post-vaccine world and Blursday could well become the word for a week where each day blurs into the next. But I kinda doubt that my personal favourites, Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien and covidiot, will hang around when the old normal becomes the new normal again.

All I can say is I just never want to hear about anything going “viral” again for a long time. I think we should find a new word for that at least.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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