Now here is something to ponder. Did you ever think about how the Covid-19 pandemic has unleashed a flood of words and phrases into our everyday language usage? At a time when our poor selves are trying to emerge from the year-long struggle for survival and are somehow coping up with our altered lifestyles. A closer look shows how the pandemic has created a flurry of words and idioms into our common parlance.
It is very hard to recall when was the last time that the English language got a great fillip out of a catastrophic global event. The exponential rise of the use of a few related words in such a short span of time is astonishing and overwhelming indeed. Even the Oxford dictionary had to twist their two decades of practice of quarterly updating their lexicon list and was obliged to include newer phrases within a month, in July 2020.
Words that were once obscure and unintelligible and until now were strictly regarded as scientific jargons to common masses, overnight became buzzwords. Medical terms like ‘social distancing’, ‘pandemic’, ‘quarantine’, ‘vaccine’ ‘inoculation’ are deeply integrated into the fabric of language today. We now not only know the terms such as ‘sanitization’, ‘containment zones’, ‘flattening the curve’, ‘self-isolation’, ‘contagion’, ‘comorbidity’, but it has given rise to a general systematic bend of discourse and discussion towards health matters.
Medical and scientific terms have become a part of the basic vocabulary for everyone in the pandemic.
On a lighter note, the pandemic has made us sound like pseudo-scientists and medical professionals in the conversations we make. There has been a significant awakening of the scientific consciousness among people. There are a positive shift and greater uptake of healthcare and wellness practices even among people who bypassed the need to devote adequate time and focus on fitness, exercise, personal grooming, sleep, and importantly diet regimes.
The disease outbreak has so gripped our collective imagination that it has overcome the barriers of class, caste, race, gender, and multiple social identities to make us aware of our human and biological existence. If we were to look back in time, linguistic politics is very much at the heart of the struggle for separate statehoods in India and has time to time fanned up the dialogues on what must be the official language in the country. But surprisingly Covid-19 has diluted the linguistic divides and has unified the populace who are not hesitating to use English terms so fluidly in their expressions.
Unlike the words or rather abbreviations such as ‘ROFL’-Roll on the Floor Laughing, ‘YOLO’- You Only Live Once, ‘TTYL’-Talk To You Later and ‘BRB’- Be Right Back, that are popular and frequently used for communication among the millennials, and among the information technology (IT) professionals, the words associated with Covid-19 pandemic are equally and intensively used across all age groups. As the hunt for the Covid-19 medicines and vaccines advanced over the months, so did our vocabulary.
We are well versed with even the tongue-twisters ‘hydroxychloroquine’, ‘dexamethasone’, ‘AstraZeneca’, and it should not surprise us if in future spelling competitions (like SpellBee), kids are mouthing such difficult medical words with aplomb. The pandemic has definitely flared up the scientific temper among the children as young as in primary schools who are familiar with ‘Corona’, ‘Covishield’, ‘Covaxin’, ‘antigen’, ‘real-time polymerase chain reaction (RCT-PCR)’ and so on.
Not that the world is witnessing a pandemic for the first time in its history of existence, but unlike the previous ones, this pandemic has occurred in a world enthralled by the digital revolution. Aided by information and communication technology (ICT) and primarily social media, notwithstanding our physical distancing mandates and being confined into our homes under ‘lockdown’, the world felt much closer with a click of a mouse or a tap on the phone.
The digital revolution has helped people stay connected in the pandemic.
As the virus spread progressively with migrating flows of people and globe-trotting travelers, we realized the existence of countries and islands we were pretty oblivious of. Additionally, the pandemic has managed to upturn the geopolitics of the world and has somewhat enhanced our knowledge of geography.
The dissemination of the previously existing words witnessed ‘superspreading’ and gained prominence as noted by lexicographers lately owing to this health emergency. This has been reflected in the change in the global advertising language (read jingles and brand mottos) since the disease outbreak. Greater emphasis is laid on corona-virus awareness through informative campaigns using terminologies such as ‘hand-washing, ‘face-masks, ‘personal protective equipment (PPE)’, ‘stay at home, leveraging on the consumer fear and safety precautions needs.
Social interactive gestures like the way we greet people have undergone sea-change as we now do a ‘namaste’ or an ‘elbow bump and have cautiously discarded a handshake, high-five, back-pats, and hug. The English language has evolved and adapted rapidly across the world gaining the audience’s humor with the coining of new words such as, ‘covidiot’, ‘coronacation’, and ‘morona’.
Internet connectivity and digital devices allowed the academicians and researchers to be omnipresent; (read attend), the multitude of ‘webinars’, talks, and workshops which in the pre-Covid-19 era were humanely impossible to imagine. Who could deny that this public health event has catapulted an unparalleled magnitude of research in natural and social sciences and simultaneously has given food for thought to the creative people in arts and literature?
There has been a steady emergence of websites, online platforms, video-conferencing ‘apps’ (read web-based applications), ‘cloud calling’, ‘telemedicine software for connecting. Young children are learning ‘coding’ and have become tech-savvy and experts in navigating the digital world through ‘online teaching’.
In an era of hashtags and tweeting when it is easier to search up people sitting in remote corners of the world, the academic collaborations and chance of connecting with people across the continents for face-to-face teleconferencing meetings have been tremendous. But of course, we are also dealing with newer kinds of health scares such as ‘zoom fatigue’, as a result of too much screen time and digital onslaught. We are amidst an ‘infodemic’ and are been bombarded with information avalanche every minute.
But viewing with an optimistic lens, this pandemic language has propagated a window for discussing difficult yet pertinent questions on gender, work, and power dynamics of marginalization across social sections. Terms like ‘work from home, ‘remote work’, have brought the conversations of ‘home-based work’ (self-employment) and ‘domestic work’ which are largely and ubiquitously performed by women and are gravely undervalued; out of the academic circles into the common narratives.
Moreover, we have woken up to the invaluable contribution made by the ‘frontline workers’ especially the ones in informal occupations (waste-pickers, sweepers, nurses, community health workers; Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers, street-vendors) in ‘contact tracing’, curbing the ‘community transmission’ and recognize their tireless efforts keeping the essential services alive during the lockdown. The astronomical rise of media reportage of domestic violence has surely made way into the public forums for addressing the human rights issue upfront.
In the last year, the world has been a spectator to an unprecedented socio-economic disruption and consequent extraordinary measures to ameliorate it. In the current phase of the global vaccination drive until we attain ‘herd immunity’ we have to adjust to the ‘new normal’ and remain in a ‘social bubble’.
Author Details– Dr. Sudeshna Roy has a PhD from JNU and she writes on health, livelihoods, gender, and urban issues.