COVID Times: New Terms Make Sound Entry

Language is intimately connected to our life. The linguists have always insisted that it is so. Now we the common people realise it amidst the pandemic. Any event with extremely powerful impact on society creates or generates some terms specific to it. These terms spread among people and become part of the lingo. At least for some time. The 2020 global pandemic has led to injection of some new terms in our everyday life. Some were already in circulation. But now they are being used with greater vigour and frequency. Some are ‘new’ in the sense that we the ordinary people have never known them before. In fact, the most frequently used term COVID-19 were invented only in February this year.

‘Epidemic’, the sudden and extensive outbreak of a disease was a known term. But not ‘pandemic’, which crosses geographical boundaries, greater possibility of infection and larger coverage of people than epidemic. ‘Lockdown’ was a known term but not to the extent it is being used now. ‘Unlockdown’ was much less known. ‘Isolation’ was a familiar term as it concerns putting affected or suspected patients of infectious diseases of any kind, and not just coronavirus. But ‘quarantine’ or ‘self-quarantine’ are relatively new items for the non-medical people. ‘Stay home’, connected to both ‘isolation’ and ‘quarantine’, has also found wide circulation as a governmental order asking us not to venture out of home except to meet essential needs like food and medicines. ‘Containment zone’ is another growingly familiar term to depict the worst affected areas or localities. It is further qualified by ‘red zone’, ‘orange zone’ and ‘green zone’, depicting various degrees of presence of the virus in the first two and the absence in the last one. There are some highly stylized but relatively less used terms like ‘covidient’— referring to one who follows the official advice and rules. Its opposite is a derogatory term, ‘covidiot’— one who does not follow any rules.   

One of the most frequently used new term is ‘social distancing’. It calls for prevention of mass gathering and maintenance of the ideal six feet and at least three feet distance. ‘Work from Home’ has been a relatively known one, mainly due to its use in the IT sector. But it has definitely become more popular thanks to the pandemic. ‘Infodemic’ is a newly circulated term. It refers to excess of available information— some real and some fake, some accurate and some inaccurate— resulting in confusion. There are some specialized terms in circulation among a select group of people— policymakers, epidemiologists, doctors, health workers and informed citizens. ‘Flattening the curve’— a slow but steady strategy to reduce projected number of people who may be prone to infection within a specific time frame— is one such term. In an elite league one finds ‘Quarantini’— a cocktail of quarantine and Martini— to be strictly consumed in the confines of home during lockdown.

Some interesting points can be found about the new vocabulary. First, all these terms are mostly used in English and not in any Indian language. It may be due to the technical nature of most of the terms. Second, there are certain acronyms, such as PPE, which most people use without even knowing its full form— Personal Protective Equipment. There is no problem in being ignorant as the acronym serves the purpose. Third, there are some confusing terms like ‘social distancing’. The way with which we actually need to fight the pandemic is physical distancing. Why do we need the prefix ‘social’? ‘Social’ and ‘distancing’ are odd couples— they do not fit together. The fight back on the contrary needs social bonding, rather than distancing. As the frightening virus spares none and makes no distinction while entering human body we must also be united in our fight against it. A term like ‘social distancing’ is a misfit. Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UNESCO have taken note of the problematic term. Some global newspapers like The Washington Post has published articles highlighting the issue. In India Rising Kashmir has raised this issue in feature. But as of now it seems that ‘social distancing’ has gained too deep publicity to be replaced any time soon.

In any case these terms are lending our day-to-day conversation a new look, even a new style. Whether they may cause a powerful linguistic turn depends on their continuation in the post-pandemic period. We have to wait for some time to know that.

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