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March 17, 2020

Language going viral

I don't mean for this entry to make light of coronavirus. I don't belittle the fear people are experiencing, or the severe economic consequences the virus is causing, or the grief of people who lose loved ones. That's all real.

I'm not actually writing about coronavirus here. Instead, I'm just interested in this entry in the words and phrases that are becoming part of our shared vocabulary for talking about coronavirus.

So this is just a running list of words and phrases. I'm writing about language, not about coronavirus. I'm just curious about tracking when words and phrases emerge, how they take hold, and which ones last beyond the current crisis.


This is a bit of a cop out, but fair to include since coronavirus is actually a family of viruses which includes the common cold, but will now for most of us likely always mean this specific coronavirus. Coronavirus caught on long before the name COVID-19 was bestowed, and COVID-19 is not catchy. The only viable contender for a name would've been if pandolins could've been established definitively as the animal source before coronavirus got set in our vocabulary. Pandolin flu, I think, might've stuck.

Out of an abundance of caution

In my mind, this phrase is the kind of thing government officials say during press briefings to justify actions that are potentially/probably over-reactions. It feels like, during this crisis, the term has generalized, so that we expect to read it in any statement about risk management decisions, even if the statement isn't especially important. I exemplify this with the public statement from my hometown American football team--which was posted at a time when there are no games, no practices, no public interactions, and it's not really clear why fans would need to know that staff are working from home, as we generally would not know they were working at work right now under normal circumstances. The Chiefs could actually all pretty well work from home between the Super Bowl and training camp, as far as I am concerned, global pandemic or not.

Flattening the curve

This one has staying power because it's vaguely statistical in a way that can be applied to anything with rapid growth--and because a genius named Drew Harris came up with a really good graphic to illustrate the concept. It will stick around like regress to the mean has become part of sports talk radio parlance during baseball season. Importantly, I think it's generally unclear to people that the number of cases in the steep curve and the flatter curve are supposed to be the same, so I think this term will be perpetually misused to mean 'decrease the occurrence of' rather than 'decrease the rate of occurrence of.'


There seems to be something of a coming out process (as it were), where someone announces they're beginning social distancing. As an introvert and a nerd, I admit to sometimes feeling a bit annoyed by these proclamations--especially when they come via interviews on TV/radio with people who are struggling with social-distancing or worried about the potential toll of social-distancing. On the introvert side, I've spent a fair portion of my life social-proximiting against my will or fabricating excuses for avoiding social events. On the nerd side, I've spent a fair portion of my life being social-distanced by others. I think this word has a good chance to last--i.e., "I'm too tired to go out this weekend so I'm practicing some social-distancing."


Here is the problem with panic-buying: if you can't find toilet paper for a few days, then you're definitely panic-buying, but not panic-buying in the 'hoarding' sense. But panic-buying because of the hoarding.


Basically see social-distancing. I'll take a smug angle here, though, because, in a sense, I've been preparing for self-isolating all my life. I sometimes imagine that when all of this is over, us real self-isolaters will emerge from our hovels into a sunny day, look around at our happy survivial of the disaster, and then go back inside to finish the book we're reading.

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