The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The pandemic has scarred our language

A sign informs shoppers about mask requirements and social distancing rules in Amsterdam on Nov. 24. (Jeroen Jumelet/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Remember back in quarantine, when we self-isolated except for a few socially distanced meetups — unless, of course, we were essential workers?

This sentence reads smoothly enough today, but back before March 2020, it would have been mostly undecipherable. The coronavirus has obviously changed the way we live and the way we work. It has also changed the way we talk.

Some called it the novel coronavirus at the start. Soon, it became merely the coronavirus — and mind the article, please, because this bug was nothing if not definite and defining. After that, came covid-19, our name for the disease. Then, just covid.

We had plunged into a pandemic, the World Health Organization announced, to which everyday folks and newscasters alike answered: No, we had plunged into a global pandemic.

Was this redundant? Absolutely. Was it necessary, anyhow? Maybe so. The two-fisted description added an extra “bang!” to an already alarming situation, as though we needed the phenomenon to sound as pressing as it felt to those suffering through it.

This tendency to exaggerate recurs throughout our new vocabulary. When we talk about quarantine, we don’t really mean the 40 days of seclusion that gave rise to the term hundreds of years ago; we mean 14 or so days instead. We also don’t mean cooping up post-exposure to a pathogen to contain the threat.

Most of those who “quarantined” had little reason to believe they’d been exposed, except for those folks stuck on cruise ships. And most also used the word to describe a much more extended period of time than that miserable, malinformed spring when we all cowered responsibly indoors as the trees turned green, unaware that outdoors was actually the safest place to be.

We dreamed up another word besides quarantine to describe those initial six or so months of extra caution: self-isolation, during which few of us were entirely by ourselves or entirely isolated. Many were with their families, or, another invention, their “pods.” And they saw people away from home, too — doing something confusingly known as social distancing, though the distance was actually physical. The words we employed suggested we were limiting our fraternization; really, what it meant was we were still fraternizing but six or so feet apart (or even on a screen).

Crises have fattened our dictionaries before. Snafu, you might have heard, comes from the World War II-era military acronym for “situation normal, all fouled up” (or, you know, something fouler than “fouled”) — and the word “acronym” itself appeared in English at the same time. There’s comfort in being able to describe the utterly awful. We understand it better that way, or think we do, and we wrestle it under our control.

There’s comfort also in the human connection that comes with a shared lexicon. Amid all that quarantining and self-isolating, we’ve needed connection more than ever.

Still, the impulse to breed a vocabulary that makes bad things seem even worse seems perverse — as does the drive to hang on to these terms longer than they’re useful, even when we and almost everyone we’re close to have been vaccinated once, twice, three times. Normal life nears again. Yet we cling to the impossible days, and to the language carefully fitted to describe them.

Maybe the dreary covid-19 glossary has been a way of giving ourselves permission to ache over a reality whose day-to-day toll ultimately was small for those lucky enough not to lose anyone or anything of consequence, but whose cumulative effects could still be ghastly. Maybe by maximizing the problem rather than minimizing it, we registered a collective complaint that the situation was wholly unacceptable and miserable. The clinging, similarly, is a cry for acknowledgment: This happened to us, and that should count for something.

We can talk about the pre-pandemic world now. We don’t talk about the post-pandemic world yet, and in some ways we won’t get a post-pandemic world, because where we are going has already been changed by where we’ve been. Words aren’t only words. They both describe society and shape it. We’ll probably conceive another vocabulary to cope with whatever’s coming next. Yet some words from this era will stick with us even when we’ve discarded the behaviors they were supposed to capture, like little memorials. Or like scars.