Cal State Fullerton Professor on How COVID-19 Has Affected Our Language

Stephen Mexal, professor and department chair of English, comparative literature, and linguistics at Cal State Fullerton discusses how COVID-19 has affected our language.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

How has the pandemic changed our language?
It has created more opportunities for linguistic play, which are the kind of fun expressions that no one expects to hang around very long. People might talk about a quarantini for a cocktail, or use the vaguely romantic-sounding abbreviation ’rona. It’s going to be interesting to see which, if any, terms are going to leave a lasting imprint on our language.

Which of these new terms is likely to stick around?
Specialized terms from academic fields leap to the front of the public tongue when they’re timely and useful. Phrases like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” are terms that epidemiologists and public health experts have used for years but have just now entered common language. But terms that tend to stick around after a large-scale incident are the new ones that originate in the moment rather than academic terms that were around beforehand.

How might our future use of language be affected?
I’m interested to see whether or not our behavior is changed so much that it gets reflected in the language. Right now, we might say “I’m working remote” or “I’m going to meet someone for a virtual drink.” In the future, it might not be immediately clear when we say “I’m going to work” or “I’m going to school” if we’re talking about getting into a car or going on a laptop.

Vocabulary From a Pandemic Area

Covidiot   Zoom fatigue   quaranteam   bubble   doomscrolling

quarantini   germ pod   the Before Times   ’rona   maskne

super-spreader  Blursday  contact tracing  social distancing  flatten the curve   essential workers   pod   PPE   unprecedented   second wave

Zumped   Zoombie   maskhole   WFH   virtual background

coronials   the new normal   Covidivorce   isolate   lockdown   asymptomatic

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