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COVID-19 Linguistic Legacy

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One of the things that came into our lives almost unnoticed during COVID-19 is a new vocabulary. In a very short time, we accepted and started using so many new words and terms.
COVID-19 Linguistic Legacy
Dobrica Savić
The year 2020 a year to be remembered by all of us for a very long time. Too many things went
unexpectedly wrong that it was no surprise we were looking forward to 2021, hoping that the
previous nightmares we went through would be replaced by some peaceful dreams.
A new reality dawned on us in a matter of days. Trying to find something good in it, did not work.
There was nothing positive about it. Even the word positive became an ugly word.
We painfully wanted back our good old ways of living and working. Dislike towards 2020 was
increasing with each day we had to stay locked. The new order of things pushed us towards
nostalgia for our previous life. It made us confused, angry, and most disappointingly we felt
powerless against that invisible enemy whose name, we sadly learned, was COVID-19!
Our work became work from home, our living room became a living office, the school moved to
kid’s laptop next to us, and Amazon became our favorite shopping mall. The main topic of
conversation and concern became the number of newly infected people and a remote friend who got
it – no one knows how.
New things came into our life. Microsoft Teams squeezed in to replace our face-to-face meetings,
and Zoom became the main communication channel with our family and friends. Do you hear me?
Do you see me? became the main greetings. Hello, please repeat that. You were cut off for a
moment, or maybe you are muted – became regular parts of our conversations.
We started mixing days and dates, nights, and days, and I think I even mixed the seasons. I
remember we used to have four seasons but in 2020 there were somehow only two seasons
Quarantine and No-quarantine season!
If there is one single word to describe 2020, it is the word CHANGE, in particular unexpected
change. As we remember, it all started with Wuhan and the World Health Organization (WHO)
announcing on 11 March 20201 that the world has entered the COVID-19 pandemic!
Many things changed, including the way we live, work, take care of our health, shop, entertain
ourselves, communicate, and relate to others, and many others. One of the things that came into our
lives almost unnoticed is a new vocabulary. In a very short time, we accepted and started using so
many new words and terms that it was hard to understand and explain such sudden change. This
incredible linguistic development is usually possible only during a major war or economic crisis,
but this time it happened with the health crisis.
New social, medical, technical, government, economy, and even conspiracy theory words became
part of our newly acquired vocabulary and everyday conversations. We were constantly bombarded
with new terms from TV, news, Internet, social media, radio, and friends. There were too many
previously unknown or uncommon words to list, but few examples would remind us of the most
memorable ones that marked this unprecedented year behind us.
Let us start with the field which is the most important and the most obvious source of new
The most important word we learned and quickly started to use was COVID-19. It stands for novel
coronavirus disease 2019, the year when it was detected. We also learned that the illness was caused
by the virus SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).
We immediately learned to differentiate a
pandemic (a worldwide spread of an infectious
disease) from an epidemic (a smaller area or
community, sometimes called an outbreak).
Symptomatic friends had to be avoided, but
asymptomatic ones, with no symptoms of disease
became dangerous as well. Some of us became
presumptive positive cases, but, unfortunately,
many became also confirmed positive cases. The
incubation period became the most feared period of our 2020 life.
Doctors scared us with Acute Respiratory Stress Syndrome (ARDS), a condition in which fluid
builds up in the lungs leading to a deprivation of oxygen in the bloodstream and frequently a fatal
outcome. We learned that Hydroxychloroquine is an oral drug used to treat malaria but might or
might not work against COVID-19, just like Remdesivir, initially developed and used to treat
Medical ventilators and respirators were the most sought out equipment especially at the beginning
of the pandemic, while intubation became our nightmare.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) became part of our daily
fashion. Protective masks were everywhere, so we learned the
difference between surgical masks, cloth masks, N95, KN95, 3M
masks with or without a filter. We even realized a difference between
FFP1, FFP2, and FFP3 (filtering face-piece) masks.
State of emergency, curfew, quarantine, lockdown, lockout, shutdown, and (self)isolation became
the main concepts introduced and used by various governments. Different lockdown tiers and
country or region color-coding systems were invented to keep us informed about the various
degrees of imminent danger to health and social well-being.
The size of our social bubble was being constantly modified, depending on our behavior and the
community spread of infection. Disease clusters became targets of prevention and social
distancing or physical distancing was a must throughout the world, although the actually
recommended distance varied considerably. Some countries experimented with herd immunity, also
known as social or community immunity, but had to adjust or completely abandon their approach.
It became critically important for states to conduct COVID-19
RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction)
testing, or to perform simpler antigen tests on an entire
population, as was the case with some EU countries. Antibody
tests were much sought since people wanted to know if they
had been infected, even though those types of tests were not so
reliable and not used to diagnose present infection. We got
confused with false-positive and false-negative.
We became familiar with the concept of patient zero (the first person infected with a disease in a
region or community) and a superspreader (a highly contagious individual).
Like many other fields of human activity, the COVID-19 vaccine became a battleground. Various
companies were fighting to become the first ones on the market with their invention, while
countries were promoting their approach and criticizing the developments made by other states.
Although very confused with their differences and ways they would protect us, we learned about
Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, and Sinopharm vaccines.
Many became well-informed about something called the
messenger RNA (mRNA) which is used by both the
Pfizer/BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines.
Coronaviruses have a spike-like structure on their
surface called an S protein so some of the vaccines give
cells instructions to make a harmless piece of an S
IT played an important role in responding to COVID-19. It helped companies continue conducting
their business, children attend schools and lectures, doctors offer medical advice and services,
maintain our social contacts, and stay in touch with our friends and family.
Videoconferencing replaced physical contacts, and
people used some specific IT terminology in their
everyday conversations. So we started zooming (using
the videoconferencing platform) while, at the same time,
we paid attention to videofurbishing, (arranging books
and other paraphernalia in our background). Dangers
came in form of zoombombing (unwanted, disruptive
intrusion caused by internet trolls and hackers crashing a
virtual meeting held on Zoom), and from doomscrolling
(obsessively scrolling online through depressing news).
As gyms were ordered to close down, the term Zoom Yoga emerged together with a quarantini, the
first cocktail in lockdown.
Several applications were developed to keep track of people’s contacts and movements, so social
tracing was born as a new widely known term. However, it also attracted negative attention because
of privacy protection and big brother issues.
Digital inclusion, as the ability of individuals and groups to access and use information and
communication technologies, became important. Access to and use of information and
communication technologies impacts individuals, communities, and even whole nations. Digital
inclusion is important to economic and social development, civic participation, education,
healthcare, culture, and many other areas of activity.
Business in general was hit exceptionally hard. In a very short time, it had to change its regular
modus operandi and move, whenever possible, to Work From Home (WFH)2. Not only business
but our personal and professional lives were directly impacted. We soon realized that r emote work is
not the same as telecommuting. When employees live outside the vicinity of the organization’s main
headquarters of office, like abroad, they work remotely. However, telecommuting assumes work
from the same location as the main office.
Governments around the world introduced a category of essential businesses. These are businesses
that meet a critical social purpose, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, waste collection, health care
providers, gas stations, banks, transportation, and agriculture services. All the other businesses were
regarded as non-essential businesses and as such remained closed during the lockdowns. We were
told that during the lockdown essential services can continue operating, while during a curfew
everything should be closed.
New normal and great reset3 are being contemplated as a way of life, work, and interaction with
other people, as long as the world has not found a cure or a vaccine for
Covid-19. This concept was invented and promoted by the World
Economic Forum4 causing an avalanche of negative reactions since it
went very deep into challenging the essence of the socioeconomic
structure as we know it today. The World Economic Forum estimated
that the world’s billionaires got significantly wealthier as the pandemic
spread by increased their collective wealth by 27.5% just during the first four-month of COVID-19,
to $10.2 trillion. This triggered numerous conspiracy theories questioning the origin of the
coronavirus, the outbreak being planned, the motivation of people who were trying to financially
help vaccine development, the usefulness of wearing masks, and many, many others. Out of that, we
got a new term – covidiot! An insulting term for someone who ignores health advice about COVID-
19 or spread conspiracy theories.
Understanding statistics enabled us to follow the intensity and spread of COVID-19 around the
world. Daily New Cases and Daily Deaths became starting topic of many conversations. Soon, we
found problems with such statistics due to many deficiencies, so we introduced variables such as
Total Cases per 1 Million Population, Deaths per 1 Million Population, Tests per 1 Million
Population, and some others. Government officials made sure that we learn about the importance of
Reproduction number (Rt) since our freedom of movement depended so much on it. Rt is a key
measure of how fast the virus is growing. It’s the average number of people who become infected
by an infectious person. If Rt is above 1.0, the virus will spread quickly. When Rt goes below 1.0,
the virus will stop spreading.
We had to learn the difference between the Mortality Rate (MR) and a Case Fatality Rate (CFR).
MR is a measure of the relative number of deaths (either in general or due to a specific cause)
within the entire population per unit of time. A CFR, in contrast, is the number of dead among the
number of diagnosed cases only.
Flattening the curve was another concept for us to grasp. It is an attempt to slow down the steep rise
of new cases to avoid overburdening the health care system. Now we know that flattening the curve
does not necessarily mean a decrease in the number of cases, but rather their spreads over a period
of time.
These are the most important linguistic terms that have been introduced or that became popular
during the COVID-19 pandemic. Besides them, we also learned some other things, such as that the
city of Wuhan5, where the COVID-19 started, is the
capital of Hubei6, China, and that the city of Bergamo7,
the hardest-hit city in Italy, is part of the Lombardy8
region. There were also many abbreviations to understand,
such as WHO (World Health Organization)9, CDS (US
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)10, EUA
(Emergency Use Authorization)11 from the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration)12, ACIP
(Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices)13, NHS (UK National Health Service)14, MERS
(Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).
It is difficult to predict if this newly acquired language is going to stay with us for long. Previous
social crises also left us some language legacy, but only a few words or terms stuck for long. It is in
human nature to forget unpleasant events and anything related to it. I hope we will forget most of
this vocabulary as soon as possible!
Barabak, Mark Z. (11 April 2020). ‘Quarantini.’ ‘Doomscrolling.’ Here’s how the coronavirus is
changing the way we talk. Los Angeles Times.
Burgos, Raquel (2020). How the COVID-19 pandemic changed language. Language Wire.
Burridge, Kate & Manns, Howard (11 May 2020). ABC Net News. How coronavirus restrictions
have given us a new spin on language.
Community Development & Health Network (26 May 2020). COVID-19 A to Z: Coronavirus
(COVID-19) words and terms explained in plain English.
Hosking, Patrick (28 Dec 2020). Rise of covidiots left us in desperate need of quarantinis on any
Blursday. The Sunday Times.
Kreuz, Roger J. (25 Sep 2020). How COVID-19 is changing the English language. Tje
Lawson, Robert (28 Apr 2020). Coronavirus has led to an explosion of new words and phrases –
and that helps us cope. The Conversation.
Ro, Christine (25 May 2020). From ‘covidiots’ to ‘quarantine and chill’, the pandemic has led to
many terms that help people laugh and commiserate. BBC Workfile.
Skapinker,Michael (29 Apr 2020). Coronavirus crisis creates new words that enter everyday
language. Financial times.
Schwab, Klaus & Thierry, Malleret (2020). World Economic Forum.
... Doomscrolling, also known as doomsurfing or tragedy porn, is not a new term specific to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the number of people and frequency of engagement in doomscrolling behaviours has significantly increased during Covid-19 as people find themselves scrolling through bad news continuously without the ability to stop or step back (Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2020;Savić, 2021). An explanation for this inability to stop scrolling is that it triggers the brain's amygdala and danger response (Chaffin, 2021:26). ...
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Drawing on 15 semi-structured interviews with Aotearoa youth, all of whom actively discuss disability and/or mental health online, alongside textual analysis of a variety of posts collected through approximately 100 hours of observation among 15 online community groups and tag searches across the social media platforms Facebook, Reddit and Instagram, I investigate how these New Zealanders engage in and with digital space. A core argument of this thesis is that social media forums and communities provide youth with a place to create a sense of solidarity in a society dominated by ableist assumptions. However, these spaces are also constructed and encoded with these ableist assumptions. As a member of the disabled community examining these issues and what it means to consider mental illness to be a "chronic disease"-or disability-of youth (McGorry et al., 2007:S5) were incredibly interesting. Digital technologies and social media provide spaces for the hidden histories of socially marginalised groups, such as the disabled and mentally ill, to be given their own voices. In this thesis, I investigate how some disabled and mentally ill youth in Aotearoa use the freedoms, information-sharing capacities, and community features of digital and social media (such as memes, photos, and YouTube content) in their communications of their experiences and perspectives. Language, as a social practice, plays a critical political and social role in how disabilities and mental health are understood in Aotearoa and, therefore, how disabled and mentally ill youth communicate on social media. These explorations lead to understandings of the relationship between voice and the activist, something which is non-linear and temporally situated. Activism and the activist are influenced by social norms, often being placed as the Other, leading to temporal retreats from activist activity. Social media provides a space and opportunity for disabled and mentally ill youth to reclaim their autonomy and their voice, which in traditional ableist spaces have been taken from them. Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated our digital technologies of care. The dual use of online groups for social support and information-seeking demonstrate how these social media platforms can perform as what Long (2020:250) calls "vital technologies of care" through which users possess the capacity to sustain relationships and wellbeing. They also demonstrate what I have termed "long social Covid"-the shared sense of social consciousness that reflects the social impacts of Covid-19. I suggest that digital communication, by enabling autonomy, voice, and validation, provides vital spaces for intra-group support that can develop into acts of broader social activism. However, social activism is temporally sensitive, an activity which people can and do move in and out of according to their capacities, needs, and ability to engage in activism; the retention of their voice is not dependent on their participation in social activism.
Here's how the coronavirus is changing the way we talk
  • Mark Z Barabak
Barabak, Mark Z. (11 April 2020). 'Quarantini.' 'Doomscrolling.' Here's how the coronavirus is changing the way we talk. Los Angeles Times.
How the COVID-19 pandemic changed language. Language Wire
  • Raquel Burgos
Burgos, Raquel (2020). How the COVID-19 pandemic changed language. Language Wire.
COVID-19 A to Z: Coronavirus (COVID-19) words and terms explained in plain English
Community Development & Health Network (26 May 2020). COVID-19 A to Z: Coronavirus (COVID-19) words and terms explained in plain English.
Rise of covidiots left us in desperate need of quarantinis on any Blursday
  • Patrick Hosking
Hosking, Patrick (28 Dec 2020). Rise of covidiots left us in desperate need of quarantinis on any Blursday. The Sunday Times.
How COVID-19 is changing the English language. Tje Conversation
  • Roger J Kreuz
Kreuz, Roger J. (25 Sep 2020). How COVID-19 is changing the English language. Tje Conversation.
Coronavirus has led to an explosion of new words and phrasesand that helps us cope. The Conversation
  • Robert Lawson
Lawson, Robert (28 Apr 2020). Coronavirus has led to an explosion of new words and phrasesand that helps us cope. The Conversation.
From 'covidiots' to 'quarantine and chill', the pandemic has led to many terms that help people laugh and commiserate
  • Christine Ro
Ro, Christine (25 May 2020). From 'covidiots' to 'quarantine and chill', the pandemic has led to many terms that help people laugh and commiserate. BBC Workfile.