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Quarantinis, covidiots, and social distancing: What the new vocabulary of coronavirus says about these times

This 1960 citation slip at Merriam-Webster shows the early meaning of "social distance" that referred more to closeness among various sociological groups, rather than the way it is used today.
This 1960 citation slip at Merriam-Webster shows the early meaning of "social distance" that referred more to closeness among various sociological groups, rather than the way it is used today.Peter Sokolowski/Merriam-Webster

By now, we all get it: hospitals need more N95s and PPE, and we must flatten the curve by social distancing and WFH, which likely involves Zooming and a good quarantini.

Welcome to the Coronaverse. (Or is it the Coronapocalypse?) Two months ago, these words or phrases either didn’t exist or were rarely used. As the pandemic has upended our lives, it also has catapulted a barrage of new vocabulary and slang into the mainstream lexicon, helping people make sense of — and laugh at — these dark times.

“Language is always in a state of evolution to meet the needs of its users,” said Adam Cooper, a Northeastern University linguistics professor. The explosion of new words, he said, “demonstrates an inherent interest among speakers to play with language, and under current circumstances, it’s perhaps an outlet for people who are otherwise frustrated to put a light spin on it.”

In a sign of how quickly the new vocabulary spread, Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher based in Springfield, for the first time fast-tracked its usual yearslong approval process and added to the dictionary an emergency batch of 20 terms — such as contact tracing, community spread, super-spreader, social distancing, and self-quarantine.

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Previously, the fastest word to enter the dictionary was AIDS, which took two years from appearing in The New York Times in 1982 to enter Merriam-Webster. By comparison, COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, shattered all records, going from coinage to dictionary in 34 days. Immediately it shot to the most-searched word on the dictionary website.

“That is the first and only time we’ve seen that,” said Peter Sokolowski, an editor at Merriam-Webster. “People were looking it up the second before and the second after it went live.”

The new words symbolize a shared human experience as people across the globe grapple with a new way of life. During tragedy, new playful slang can also foster humor and connection, as people Zoom and tweet from their living rooms.

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The slang that’s emerged, as cataloged by British lexicographer Tony Thorne, shows overlap among English speakers. Other words are more popular in certain countries.

In the United States, amid widespread baking and stress-eating, many are describing their weight gain as “the COVID 19,” à la “the Freshman 15″ (the 15 pounds first-year college students may be at risk of putting on).

Australians, meanwhile, have cutesy words, like “sanny” for hand sanitizer, “quaz” for quarantine, and “iso” for isolation (which, naturally, necessitates an “isobar” of booze to pass the time).

In Europe, the term “hamsterkaufing," adapted from German, has emerged to mean hoarding food like a hamster. (Which, apparently, hamsters do.)

Slang often fades fast. Merriam-Webster may wait to add “quarantini” — any cocktail fixed while staying home during social distancing.

The dictionary sees its role as particularly important during times of crisis, Sokolowski said, as word searches often spike after tragedies.

Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher based in Springfield, Mass. since 1831, has collected 16 million paper citations for research to show the historical usage of words in their full context and bibliography. These were used to write definitions before the advent of computer search.
Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher based in Springfield, Mass. since 1831, has collected 16 million paper citations for research to show the historical usage of words in their full context and bibliography. These were used to write definitions before the advent of computer search.Merriam-Webster

Merriam-Webster’s latest search data encapsulates the waves of reactions that have washed over the public since mid-March. First came disease words: epidemic, pandemic, coronavirus. Next, government words: draconian, lockdown, martial law. Finally societal words: hoarding, panic, force majeure (the unforeseeable “act of God” circumstance that prevents the fulfillment of a contract).

Now, many are interested in words related to working from home (or “WFH,” which Merriam-Webster added Wednesday).

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Interestingly, “slacker” has taken on a new meaning. No longer reserved just for someone who’s lazy, it can also now describe the opposite: a coworker active on Slack messenger.

People are getting “Zumped,” or dumped over Zoom video conference. And babies born nine months from now will be “coronials.”

Even with all the new words, there’s still no precise term to describe the current at-home state, said Jesse Snedeker, a Harvard University linguistics and psychology professor. Most people, she said, feel constrained but aren’t technically “in quarantine," so they often give up and say “how things are now” or “the new reality."

“I suspect that’s because we do not agree, as a society, about what is happening or we do not want to be too clear about it because it is upsetting,” she said in an email. “Curiously, we do seem to have a word for ending the non-quarantine/ non-lock down/ distancing era: reopening. Maybe that is because what we are hoping for, ultimately, is clearer to us.”

Perhaps that explains the sudden popularity of the phrase “the new normal" among pundits, politicians, and experts describing life when businesses reopen.

Some are already tired of it.

“Just curious: What spirit does your family take a shot of when someone utters the phrase “the new normal”?” Jay Wexler, a Boston University law professor, tweeted this month.

The phrase makes him cringe, he said by phone.

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“Everything is completely abnormal, but as long as we call it ‘normal’ it makes us feel better,” Wexler said. “In this day and age, everybody’s yapping and tweeting and updating their opinions constantly, and if you talk and talk and talk, it’s hard to come up with new ways of saying things.”

Whether the new coronavirus words will stay in use likely hinges on how long the pandemic lasts. Even so, some words have more staying power.

Previous historical crises have spawned words and phrases that later morphed. “Ground zero" emerged after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; later the phrase became synonymous with the Twin Towers sites after the 9/11 attacks.

Now, the fate of the phrase “going viral” may be up in the air. To Cooper, of Northeastern, it may endure as many people have forgotten its original meaning and continue using it to describe something widely shared online.

But Sokolowski said he is likely done saying it, as the phrase may become “a reminder of a very unfortunate tragic time.”

Other slang may or may not be around for the long term: Someone behaving irresponsibly during the outbreak can be called both a “morona” and a “covidiot.” (Not to be confused with a “flu bro,” a male coronavirus denier who insists “it’s just the flu.”)

The two terms will duke it out in the wild, but “covidiot” will likely prevail as it just sounds better, said Heather Littlefield, a Northeastern linguistics professor.

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“It has to do with how catchy it is,” Littlefield said. “It’s almost like a fighting-out of the funnest or best words.”

“Covidiot” may win the battle, but still fade when social distancing ends. It even contains a prime example of fleeting slang: “Vidiot" was an insult in the 1950s, when many feared televisions, referring to someone made insane by watching too much TV, Sokolowski said.

Times change.

Now, a “vidiot” would undoubtedly be home binge-watching Netflix — and actually be considered a responsible citizen.


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.