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Quarantinis at the Coronaspeakeasy - How COVID-19 has shaped our lexicon

We don’t know about you, but before 2020, we had almost never used or heard the words ‘social distancing’ or ‘furlough’. Indeed, one of the first phenomena we noticed with the arrival of the coronavirus was the accompanying linguistic baggage; from an abundance of scientific terms which have moved into everyday usage, to the coining of new terminology and slang terms (what some are calling a pundemic). Be it a dark sense of humour, or a need to unpack the ‘unprecedented’, the words we use now will be a marker of these times.

However, you may be surprised to hear that ‘furlough’ has been in the English language since the 17th century. It can be traced back to the Dutch ‘verlof’ or the German ‘verlaub’ meaning ‘leave’. As for ‘social distancing’, this was an anthropological term explored by Edward Hall. It originally differentiated the space you would leave between yourself and a stranger (i.e. 2-3 metres… maybe more if you are British) from ‘personal distance’ (of 1 metre) between family members and friends.

This upward curve of coronavirus-related terms is referred to as a ‘lexical load’ or, thanks to Tony Thorne, a linguistics professor at King’s College London, ‘lexical overload. He put together a clever list of new ‘Coronaspeak’ terms and their meanings. Joins us as we revisit some familiar territory or explore the linguistic (as yet) unknown…

Squash the sombrero (slang for ‘flatten the curve’): referring to reducing the ‘peak’ curvature of a graph. The former was even used by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a press release.

Zoom fatigue: ‘a draining of energy resulting from the unusual stresses involved in interactions in a virtual meeting’. How on earth did Skype drop the ball on this one?

Quarantini: a fairly self-explanatory ‘quarantine’ and ‘martini’ blended and poured over ice. I'll take une quarantaine.

Of course, the crux of a pandemic is that it spans the entire globe, so linguistic coinages cannot be ‘confined’ to the anglosphere…

The great gender debate: le or la covid-19

The Académie Française has deemed ‘covid’ or ‘covid-19’ a feminine noun in line with gender norms pertaining to the principle noun or word in an acronym. Since COVID-19 stands for ‘COronaVIrus Disease 2019’, the feminine ‘maladie’ (meaning disease) shoulders this burden. That said, if our French audience is anything to go by, this decision has been given a wide (socially distant) berth, with most insisting that the masculine ‘le covid’ is the established lexical norm and should be upheld, s’il vous plaît.

Déconfinement: easing lockdown or… ‘unlockdown'

As the curve flattens, the use of ‘déconfinement’ surges in France. Meanwhile, in the English media, this is generally referred to in the verb form ‘easing lockdown’. Here, Thorne even argues that ‘unlockdown’ could become the English equivalent. Only time will tell how this graph will look for the UK once we are… unlockdowned?

Taking ‘Zoom fatigue’ to another level

Hamsterkauf: to stockpile food like a hamster

Saving the best for last, ‘hamsterkauf’ has even made its way into the English media, either in its native German form, or as the anglicised ‘hamsterkaufing’. We see this as a prime example of linguistic adaptation to a crisis. Who could be panicked by a fluffy hamster?

All in all, the verdict is still out on whether we are using language as a ‘lexicoping’ mechanism or simply flexing our muscles out of necessity for new norms. Thorne argues these terms demonstrate the need for people to empower themselves ‘by inventing and exchanging our own expressions’. But while slang and humour may bring us together, ‘lexical overload’ may also increase levels of stress and confusion if people can't keep up. At the very least this new linguistic frontier offers something to look forward to in the form of new dictionary entries and ‘word of the year’ countdowns.


By Amy Reid, WIT Account Manager


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