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OPINION

Some thoughts on ‘emerging’

It’s a word that comes up over and over these days when people are talking about COVID-19. Are we emerging from the pandemic? Are new variants emerging? We’d like to meet you for dinner — are you emerging yet?

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Back in December 2020, Globe Opinion asked writers to suggest candidates for the word of the year. I couldn’t think of any. But now I’ve thought of one.

(This reminds me of a snail joke a friend once told me. A man walks down his front path, sees a snail, and kicks it into the shrubbery. Two years later he sees the snail on the path again, and the snail says, “So what was that about?”)

The word I’ve been thinking about is “emerging.”

It’s a word that comes up over and over these days when people are talking about COVID-19. Are we emerging from the pandemic? Are new variants emerging? Emerging evidence suggests that rates of infection are going up or going down. New facts are emerging about methods of measurement, recommended behaviors, societal inequities, possible treatments. New political divides are emerging. There is an emerging realization that we’re not going to wake up one morning and find that the virus has disappeared. We’d like to meet you for dinner — are you emerging yet?

“Emerging” has its origin in the Latin verb “emergere”: to rise up or out. This can refer to a physical action: a body — say a swimmer or an island or a sea monster — rising up out of the ocean. It can also have a more figurative meaning: something that did not previously exist coming into being, or something that was not previously known coming into awareness.

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By definition, the word “emerging” has to do with flux. It tells us that something is in progress.

Grammatically, too, it’s a word that won’t quite hold still. It can be an adjective (as in “emerging evidence”) or a part of a verb (as in “evidence is emerging”). And when it is part of a verb, it belongs to a slippery tense called the present progressive, which is just what it sounds like, describing an unfinished action that began in the past and is still going on.

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But even among present-progressive verbs, the word “emerging” has an extra dimension of fluidity. The phrase “the monster is sitting” contains a present-progressive verb, but the action is static. The monster is just sitting. Compare that with the phrase “the monster is emerging.” Grammatically the two are identical, but the second one is a hell of a lot more scary.

What is most interesting about the word “emerging” is its ambiguous relationship with time. It tells us that something is in motion, but not how fast or slowly that thing is moving. It has no opinion on where the thing is headed or what the outcome will be.

The pandemic has knocked our old assumptions about time out from under us. We live in a wilderness of anxiety and sadness and canceled plans. (Joy, too, when a planned event actually happens.) Our lopsided social and work obligations teeter and change because of emerging new challenges, hazards, and recommendations, and also because of people’s emerging and differing senses of what is safe and what isn’t. One person’s too fast is another person’s too slow.

Which reminds me of another snail joke: A turtle offers to take a snail on a ride around the block, and the snail hops on the turtle’s back. Two years later, they’ve made the circuit, and the snail says, “Wheeee!”

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I thought the joke was funny when I first heard it, but now it seems even more apt, hinging as it does on the difference between people-time, turtle-time, and snail-time. So what kind of time are we in now? Are we emerging from the pandemic? Will we ever be able to say definitely that we have emerged? Are we stuck in a cycle of emerging, retreating, and reemerging? And what are we emerging into? What will emerge next?


Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.