A novel lexicon for the novel coronavirus

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Yesterday, as my colleagues and I were gearing up for our first virtual faculty meeting to plan our online teaching for the remainder of the semester, someone mentioned "social distancing".  Immediately, another faculty member said that he heard on television that an MIT professor had advised against that expression because, in fighting the coronavirus, we need to keep our social structures intact.  Instead, the MIT professor recommended "physical distancing".

As it turns out, of all the new vocabulary associated with the fight against the novel coronavirus, "social distancing", as we shall see below, and as I'm hearing from practically everybody I know, is one neologism associated with the pandemic that is likely to outlast the pandemic itself.

Keep 6 feet or 2 meters away from each other!

The new usages associated with the novel coronavirus are nicely laid out in this article, from which I will quote liberally:

"In pandemic, word definitions shift and new lexicon emerges", by Matt Sedensky, Philadelphia, AP (3/20/20)


Newscasts bring word of “hot zones” and “lockdowns.” Conversations are littered with talk of “quarantines” and “isolation.” Leaders urge “social distancing” and “sheltering in place” and “flattening the curve.”

In an instant, our vocabulary has changed — just like everything else.

“Words matter,” says John Kelly, a senior research editor at Dictionary.com. “They provide comfort and order amid chaos. They provide solidarity in an age of social distancing.”

A look at the fast-evolving lexicon of the coronavirus pandemic:


Trump, who spent weeks brushing off the severity of the crisis, is now touting himself as “a wartime president” leading the fight against the virus. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is equating ventilators to “missiles” in the battle. French President Emmanuel Macron has bluntly declared: “We are at war.”

Around the world, words typically used in relation to nuclear fallout, active shooters, deadly storms and war are now being deployed to discuss disease.

John Baugh, a linguist at Washington University in St. Louis, says doctors are desperate to shake the public to attention, using metaphors they think can convey the seriousness of the problem. Politicians may be doing the same — or may be trying to capitalize on catastrophe.


After the virus gripped China, onlookers saw a “lockdown” at the outbreak’s epicenter of Wuhan, with public transit coming to a halt, monitors enforcing orders keeping people inside and officials going door-to-door searching for infected people to be forced into quarantines.

As COVID-19 moved west, though, the meaning of such terms has morphed, and leaders’ definitions of disaster jargon has been as varied as the public’s interpretations.

Cuomo, whose state has the largest number of virus cases in the U.S., created a “containment zone” in New Rochelle last week. Paired with an order dispatching the National Guard — though only for cleaning and food distribution — the phrase conjured images of mass quarantine even as businesses remained open and people were free to come and go.

Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have subsequently aired different messages on the possibility of more severe restrictions in the biggest American city, with the mayor urging residents to prepare to “shelter in place” and the governor criticizing the idea and the language. Cuomo has dismissed “shelter in place” as a relic of the Atomic Age, when people were trained to get to an interior windowless room until they got an “all clear” message.

“Now, that’s not what people really mean, but that’s what it sounds like,” he said. “Communicate what you mean without using terms that nobody understands and only incites panic.”

With people clamoring to know what’s next, it’s important that a San Francisco “shelter in place” not be confused with a Wuhan “lockdown,” but it’s hard to get the same message projected everywhere.

“People are using different terms somewhat interchangeably,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, an expert on disaster preparedness and public health at Columbia University. The tug-of-war over terminology echoes the patchwork of measures that state and local governments have taken, he said.


Kathleen Hall Jamieson cringes when scientists toss out statements of “morbidity” and “mortality” in the same breath, when public officials warn of “asymptomatic” people posing a threat, and when news conferences are peppered with words like “vector” and “transmission.”

“They are incomprehensible to many in the public,” said the University of Pennsylvania communications expert, who co-edited “The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication.”

“Public health officials,” she said, “need to translate their technical language into intelligible language.”

That means saying something like “not showing any symptoms” instead of “asymptomatic,” using simple verbs like “spread” versus “transmit,” and opting for the clarity of “hand-washing” over “hygiene.”

But Hall Jamieson marvels at how Dr. Anthony Fauci and others have managed to get the public to grasp a complicated medical concept with the phrase “flattening the curve,” often accompanied by visual hand cues.

And many see “social distancing” to be the greatest pandemic-era addition the vernacular yet — easily understood phrasing that’s helped communicate to millions that they need to keep a safe berth to avoid spreading the virus.

“That’s really taken off,” says Eric Acton, a linguist at Eastern Michigan University, “and (it’s) a term that probably will have a life that outlives this outbreak.”


“We now have a name for the disease,” the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced on Feb. 11, declaring it COVID-19.

It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, and no obivous [sic] acronym like AIDS or SARS or MERS has arisen as a replacement.


As the curve of the pandemic flattens and life returns to normal, you can be sure that new expressions will arise to help ease us from the hysteria that currently grips us.

For me, the biggest quandary of all during the current crisis is why people hoard TP / bumwad?  Is it really that important?  And do people need that much?


  1. mg said,

    March 20, 2020 @ 3:10 pm

    Overworked scientists are tweaking the name themselves. See the Twitter thread at https://twitter.com/edyong209/status/1241000140548210689

  2. Y said,

    March 20, 2020 @ 4:26 pm

    Social distancing means keep distance in a social setting. It also alerts people not to have social gathering.

  3. neminem said,

    March 20, 2020 @ 6:01 pm

    My favorite neologism from this month by *far*, which I also hope lives on after things return to normal, because it's just such a great word: "quarantini", as in, a martini drunk while quarantined (often during a "virtual happy hour" – also an interesting new phrase.)

  4. Cheryl Thornett said,

    March 20, 2020 @ 6:50 pm

    In the UK, politicians over-used the phrase 'self-isolate' in reference to older and potentially vulnerable people earlier on, when they should have spoken of social distancing or limiting contact with others. Going anecdotally by my acquaintance, people in these groups understood what 'self-isolate' means as the medical people did, far better than the politicians, and were variously distressed and angered by the pronouncements.

  5. Josh said,

    March 20, 2020 @ 7:00 pm

    Here's one I hope to hear in the coming months: "cautious reintegration"

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    March 20, 2020 @ 10:32 pm

    One thing I've been waiting to see is what happens to the pronunciation of COVID-19. According to an old paper by Geoff Lindsey ("Quantity and quality in British and American vowel systems") – so old (1990) it predates the widespread adoption of Wells lexical sets, but I'll use them here – AmEng prefers the GOAT vowel for orthographic O in such neologisms while BrEng varies between GOAT and LOT, preferring the latter under appropriate phonological circumstances (in words like yogurt, Kosovo). So far most people are still saying "coronavirus" rather than "COVID-19", but in line with Lindsey's observation I've heard at least one British TV newsreader say COVID-19 with the LOT vowel. I've also heard at least two British newsreaders use the GOAT vowel.

  7. Rob Grayson said,

    March 21, 2020 @ 2:46 am

    @Bob Ladd: I'm a Brit living in the UK, and I don't think I've so far heard any native speaker of British English use anything other than the /k'əʊvɪd/ pronunciation.

  8. Rob Grayson said,

    March 21, 2020 @ 2:48 am

    I'm wondering whether anyone has an authoritative source for when "social distancing" was first used? Given that its Wikipedia page dates back to 2009, I hardly think it qualifies as a neologism.

  9. Rodger C said,

    March 21, 2020 @ 4:52 am

    I've heard "Covid" with LOT vowel once, from an American on NPR.

  10. ktschwarz said,

    March 21, 2020 @ 5:34 am

    Merriam-Webster just made an unscheduled update for relevant terms: see their blogpost. They have social distancing (noun) dated to 2003, and socially distance (verb) now has two quite different senses: the older one, dated to 1984, means to ostracize and shun socially, the newer one is the keep-six-feet-away sense.

  11. KevinM said,

    March 21, 2020 @ 7:08 am

    @Bob, Rodger: So I guess that would be Ovid's literary collaborator?

  12. Trogluddite said,

    March 21, 2020 @ 11:23 am

    @ktschwartz: 'Social distancing' (noun) has certainly been used with the "older meaning" too.
    On a hunch, I searched for 'social distancing' on one of the autism community forums which I frequent, and found references at least as far back as 2008. Given how common the topic of difficulties with social interaction is in the context of discussions about autism, I would guess that many other (and possibly older) references could be found (social withdrawal by the writer or ostracism by peers would be the intended meaning in the vast majority of cases, I should think).

    As elsewhere, the term has become the focus of much discussion on autism forums; and there is even a little gloating in some cases, as a great many of us have endured a lifetime of perennial criticism for our somewhat anchorite ways and/or strong preference for on-line communication over shared physical spaces. Rather ironically, some of us may even have greater social contact with our usually gregarious peers now that they are flocking on-line in the name of "social distancing"!

  13. F said,

    March 21, 2020 @ 12:15 pm

    This is Language Log, not Behavioral Psychology Log, but Doug Muder has some speculation about why people hoard toilet paper here.

  14. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 21, 2020 @ 5:15 pm

    Re: intentional underreporting of cases, etc., cause in China to be nailed for all time to a "pillar of shame", this terms seems to have been chi3ru3zhu4 耻辱柱 in the original statement, which from a Chinese POV is surely be a Western concept… but what is/was a "pillar of shame" / 耻辱柱? Maybe this is a mistranslation into Chinese from 'pillory'?

  15. Michael Watts said,

    March 21, 2020 @ 11:41 pm

    @Bob, Rodger: So I guess that would be Ovid's literary collaborator?

    This highlights a problem with LOT that I was going to bring up — the productive co- prefix uses the GOAT vowel.

    Admittedly this is coming from an American perspective, but I have trouble seeing how you could read "covid" with LOT for the same reason you don't read "yogurt" with LOT: if you wanted a short vowel in the first syllable, you'd double the following consonant. "Yogurt" /joʊgɚt/; "Yoggurt" /jɑgɚt/.

  16. Bob Ladd said,

    March 22, 2020 @ 1:23 am

    @Michael Watts:
    But in British English you do pronounce yogurt with the LOT vowel! There's definitely a difference between BrEng and AmEng here. But you may be right that the co- prefix induces more GOAT.

    Tangentially relevant is that there are a few dozen townships in the Finger Lakes area of New York state named after historical and literary figures from the classical era (Ulysses, Ithaca, Pompey, Virgil, and many more). The village of Ovid is always pronounced locally with the GOAT vowel.

  17. Rose Eneri said,

    March 22, 2020 @ 2:46 am

    My linguist pet peeve surrounding the US COVID19 news briefings is the use of "lean in." I have no idea what this means. I would think "lean in" means to listen intently. But how this relates to the pandemic, I can't figure.

    I agree that the US scientists giving the COVID19 briefings need to use more common words to get their points across. Unfortunately, the need for this is the abysmal level of scientific knowledge attained by most Americans. The MD/PhDs spend all their time around highly intelligent, highly educated people. They have no idea how ignorant most Americans are about anything even remotely scientific.

    Even more unfortunate is the abysmal lack of scientific knowledge exhibited by the news media who only exacerbate the problem with their inaccurate, sensationalistic reporting. There should be dedicated science reporters with science knowledge who can translate concepts to their readers. Instead, we have reporters who distort facts to fit their political agenda and feverishly hunt for every opportunity for a "gottcha" moment.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    March 22, 2020 @ 5:10 am

    "Lean in" means "double down" to me; I assume it's a reference to Sheryl Sandberg. https://www.amazon.com/Lean-Women-Work-Will-Lead/dp/0753541645/

    (I haven't read the book and don't know anyone who would actually use the phrase; the "double down" meaning is gleaned from context and might well offend people who have read the book.)

  19. Starry Gordon said,

    March 23, 2020 @ 9:11 am

    'Epicenter'. This is an old word which I recall seeing used with the meaning 'that spot on the surface of the earth directly over an earthquake event.' Some say the epi- was copied from 'epidemic', rather than as an appeal to classical Greek prefixes. The meaning has been modified a bit; now it seems to mean 'approximate initial location'.

    A possible alternative which does not seem to have arisen to the top of the froth was 'ground zero', originally the spot on the surface of the earth nearest a nuclear explosion in the air, afterwards applied to the site of the World Trade Center after 9/11.

  20. Rick Randall said,

    March 24, 2020 @ 5:50 am

    Lean into = turn a bad thing into a less bad thing by embracing it. I came across this first in a story about a young former college student who published videos on social media of her genital area while in a school library. After she was identified and banned from the campus, she decided to become a porn actress (and did) thereby making her notoriety, fame, infamy, etc., pay off. She described that as "leaning into it".

  21. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    March 25, 2020 @ 8:46 pm

    California Gov Newsome today at a press conference expressed a preference for "physical distance" over "social distance".

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