The New Words of COVID
by Prof. Dr. Dr. Massimo Leone (University of Turin, Shanghai University, and FRIAS, Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Freiburg)
Language is the essential cognitive resource of human beings. Through it, they can better cope with a changing environment. When change is fast, language changes rapidly too. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the entire world in a few months. There is no surprise, then, that new or renewed words, expressions, and signs have mushroomed as a consequence.
Some of them were technical. Governments and institutions officially adopted them to designate the new situation and their responses to it. The word “pandemic” itself, but also “lockdown”, “self-isolating”, “quarantine”, “social-distancing”, “key workers”, “shelter-in-place”, “confinement”: these words and expressions already existed, but gained new momentum and significance in 2020, often with a new semantics. “Quarantine” was quite an exotic, archaic word in Europe till 2019, whereas is common currency in 2020. The choice of words, especially when official, was rarely neutral. In some countries, for instance, the categoric expression “lockdown” was replaced by the somehow gentler “confinement”, like in the French “confinement”. Similarly, the expressions “work from home”, “tele-working”, “smart working” or, like in the Italian administration, “agile working”, have different nuances.
Technical terms and definitions also proliferated, so that not only epidemiologists now know the difference between “contagious” and “infectious”, not only ER doctors can distinguish between a “ventilator” and a “respirator”, and not only statisticians know the meaning of “flatten the curve” or “clusters”. Some of the English words became international, yet many countries also adopted terms in local languages, like the French “grappe” or “foyer” for “cluster”. Abbreviations too, the so called “coronacronyms”, multiplied, from “PPE”, “Personal Protective Equipment”, to “WFH”, “Working From Home”. The most common item of the COVID-19 pandemic, the medical face mask, was also designated through different terms in the various languages, from the Italian “mascherina” to the Spanish (Latin America) “tapaboca”; some designations have been polemical, like the Spanish “bozal”, which names the medical face mask like a muzzle, so as to stress its supposedly repressive meaning.
Language has shown even more creativity in the private domain. The pandemic has affected almost every aspect of the personal and social life. New words and expressions were coined in response, often with a humorous, ironic undertone. When all is lost, indeed, language provides the most formidable tool to cope with an otherwise untreatable reality: the tool of irony. Linguistically, many of the new terms were wordplays based on the terms “COVID” and “Corona”, but many also distorted the word “quarantine”, which probably designated the most dramatic experience lived by the world population during the pandemic.
The new words were created to name new categories of individuals, in terms of age and cultural epoch –for instance the “covidials”, that is, the generation of children born between November 2020 and June 2021 as a result of the prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns. A synonym for “covidials” is “coronials”, which, by the way, was coined by rapper Lil Durby in his 2020 rap song “COVID thirst”. Another synonym is “coronababies”,but then also the term “quaranteens” started to circulate, that is, children born between 2001 and 2007, who were technically teenagers during the COVID-19 quarantine period in 2020. Finally, also the more encompassing word “covidians” emerged, that is, those who lived through the global COVID-19 pandemic, starting in January 2020, like a sort of new human species; we are all covidians now.
Another group of new words were created not to designate the generations affected by the virus but the types of behavior people would display during the pandemic. Going for those fearing a “coronapocalypse”, also called “coronageddon”, to those – mostly teenagers or quaranteens – who would adopt the slogan “Quarantine and Chill” (after the already existing “Netflix and Chill”), nickname the virus “Miss Rona” or simply “Rona”, and even mark the different generational attitude to it by calling it the “boomer remover”. Many of the new terms in this category were, of course, ironic and derogatory; thus, a “covidiot” is now globally someone who ignores the warnings and rules regarding public health or safety, but also someone who irrationally hoards goods out of fear of the virus. By the way, the types of goods that covidiots hoarded at the beginning of the pandemic are quite telling of their centrality in a given culture: toilet paper was hoarded in Australia, weapons in the US, and yeast for pizza in Italy. Expressions in this category also included “moronavirus”, a synonym for “covidiot”, as well as its antonym “quarantard”, that is, a person who is unnecessarily afraid during the COVID pandemic, or the more neutral “covidhead”, slang for the feeling of being entirely overtaken, mentally and emotionally, by stress due to the coronavirus pandemic. Other ironic expressions include “COVID-38”, a person who has been unlucky enough to contract the COVID-19 virus twice, but also some more positive terms, like “quarantina”. A “quarantina” is English slang for a woman who learns to cope with life in the age of the coronavirus, without the help of men but cultivating personal new talents like art, literature, or meditation.
Probably the largest and most humorous family of COVID-related words is that of terms that ironically designate ways at coping with the lockdowns and with the “new normality”, also called “covidianity” with a neologism. Consumption of alcohol during lockdowns increased in many countries, giving rise to pun words like “Quarantini”, coined after the name of the famous Martini cocktail, and designating a strong alcoholic beverage that is made when people are quarantined, or otherwise locked up or trapped in a location for an extended period of time. An alternative is the “Coronarita”, named after the equally famous “Margarita”, to be drunk during a “virtual happy hour” or “webaperitive”. But alcohol was central during the pandemic also in its function of sanitizer, hence the neologism “quaranshine”, from “quarantine” plus “moonshine”, that is, the hand sanitizer made by many famous distilleries, including some previously producing Martini, during the COVID-19 event.
No aspect of everyday life was spared the cultural contagion of the pandemic, so that some started to talk about “covidism” as an attitude to think about everything in relation to the virus and, in the academe, about “post-coronial studies”. Even the adjective “covidy” was coined as an attribute of everything that relates to the pandemic. Indeed, the new conditions altered everything. “Quarantime” is the word to designate that special pandemic time in which all days seem to blend together, undistinguishable from each other. This is also designated as “Blursday”, a day in which all traditional days seem to blur.
Sentimental, sexual, and social relations of course changed significantly in time of social distancing, and words with them. Increased consumption of porn during the lockdowns was designated with the neologism “quarantitties”, whereas sex in time of social distancing has been labeled “coronalingus”; a “quarantine bae” is slang for getting in a relationship with someone to last the duration of the quarantine only to break up soon after. Also, marriages sometimes did not survive the lockdowns, giving rise to the now so called “covidivorces”, also called, after Brexits, “Covexits”. “Zumping”, then, designates the particularly unpleasant but quite common experience of getting dumped during the quarantine through Zoom or other videoconference app.
As regards manners to spend one’s time during the lockdown, and especially during “covidcation” – when work or school gets canceled because of COVID-19 also called “coronacation” – besides sex and alcohol activities Could include a “Quarantino”: a neologism designating a place and/or period of time for which a person cuts themselves off from society and watches Quentin Tarantino’s films. Other pastimes could be sunbathing on one’s balcony, trying to avoid the so called “quarantan”, which is the tan one gets from masks in summer quarantine, but also getting together with other people for the time of the lockdown. This sparked the term “quaranteam” in order to avoid the “quarantigue”, the fatigue brought on by spending too long in COVID-19 self-isolation, and getting, instead, some “quarantainment”. Quarantainment yet typically involved food cooking and eating, especially in Italy, so bringing about the new expressions “COVID-10”, “COVID-15”, “COVID-19”, meaning the number of pounds gained during the lockdown. A “COVID cut” is an emergency haircut one gave to oneself during the quarantine, whereas “covidity” is the newly acquired ability to express emotions without using of the lower half of the face for emotional expressions behind a mask.
Also work and technology were of course affected by the pandemic and became occasion for new words, for instance “doomscrolling”, which is the activity of scrolling through social networks but only to find there bad news about the pandemic, so feeding the general “infodemic”; “covideoparties”; “hot desking”, meaning the new way of working in team in time of social distancing; and “Zoom bombing” or “Zoom raiding”, referring to the unwanted, disruptive intrusion, generally by internet trolls and hackers, into a video conference call.
New words will continue to emerge as humanity faces this global challenge and seeks to respond to it through science, in search for a vaccination, but also through language, in search for suitable representations of what is happening. What the planet will need in the forthcoming months may perhaps be expressed with a new neologism, which I would like to launch today: the world affected by COVID needs “covidence”, which is a kind of providence, but also the ability of be “co-videns”, to see (and hopefully solve) problems together.
 On this topic, see the insightful talk given by Prof. Bernd Kortmann for FRIAS, the Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies at Freiburg University, on June 17, 2020: https://www.frias.uni-freiburg.de/en/media-library/video-podcasts-1/frias-reflections/rias-reflections-with-bernd-kortmann
About the Author
Massimo Leone is Professor of Philosophy of Communication, Cultural Semiotics and Visual Semiotics at the University of Turin. He is a Senior Fellow in the Marie S. Curie Frias Cofund Fellowship Programme at FRIAS until February 2021 and currently works on his project “Transhuman Portraits: Artificial Faces in Art, Science, and Society”.