The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it a new lexicon to encapsulate elements of our discourse, proving how amendable and powerful words can be. OTR contributor, Jessica Franze explains. (Image source: Brett Jordan on Unsplash)

By Jessica Franze | @franze_jessica

The English language is made up of more than a million words, yet new ones are invented at the rate of around 5000 each year. Of these, about 1000 are deemed to be in sufficiently widespread use and can be added to The Oxford English Dictionary, the final gatekeeper of the lexicon. Already in 2021, “adulting”, “quaranteen” and “contactless” have made their Dictionary debuts.

Neologisms are new terms and phrases created to describe new things or give a new name to an old idea. Although commonly used in everyday life, neologisms are yet to be fully accepted in the mainstream and so, bridge the gap between our understanding of the world and recognised language.

William Shakespeare is praised for his contributions to old timed English, his having possessed the seemingly effortless ability to traverse the “neologism gap”. When he was stuck for a word, he simply made one up. Take, for instance, “swagger”, “lacklustre”, and “hint”.

The invention of language is an enquiry as important as it is interesting; important because words are powerful and interesting because, well, words are powerful. We use words to describe everything from our thoughts, feelings and emotions to likes and dislikes; the things that matter most to us, and those we consider unimportant. Through words, we show others we care (or don’t), express kindness, gratitude, happiness, joy and excitement and at times, hurt, loss, pain, sadness and devastation.

Words can start a simple conversation—the kind that changes a life—whether with a friend or stranger on the bus. Or, as Greta Thunberg shows us, words can be the start to empowering a global movement for positive change. While words may bring business partners together in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation, a poor choice of words can stun the room into silence.

Words may be misinterpreted, misunderstood, misconstrued, paraphrased, contracted, abbreviated, turned on their head, whittled down; their meaning lost, altered, manipulated. Throughout history, people, business, and governments have used their words to hurt, lie, cheat and steal. Words can be used to brainwash good people into doing bad things; alienate whole communities; turn allied nations into enemies; incite hatred, conflict, violence, war, genocide. The carnage of words throughout history is so far-reaching, in fact, one thing is clear: our words can make or break us.

Language has perhaps never been more powerful than right now. COVID-19 has spread with alarming speed, infecting millions, straining health systems and bringing many parts of the world economy to a standstill. It has also led to an upsurge of new words and phrases—that have a two-edged effect.

Established terms—such as “self-isolating”, “quarantine”, “lockdown” and “key workers”—have increased in use. At the same time, new words and phrases are contributing to a COVID-19-related vocabulary that is helping us come to grips with the “new normal”. Linguists are already starting to analyse these language changes. Coronavirus has acquired new descriptors—such as “the ‘rona’” and “Covid toe”—while “covidiot” describes someone who flouts public health advice.

The development of COVID-19-inspired language has alarmed global authorities, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), which have identified it as key to “coronaculture”. We need only look back at history, at the course of deadly disease outbreaks, each bringing with it a new vocabulary, to understand why.

“Russian sneeze” was one name for the 1889-90 Influenza pandemic. In 1918, “Spanish flu” was used to suggest the outbreak started in Spain. AIDS was known as “gay-related immune deficiency”, or even “gay cancer”. In June 2020, while speaking at a youth rally at a church in Phoenix, Arizona, President Trump mused on what the deadly Coronavirus should be called. Stirring up the anti-Chinese sentiment to cheers from the audience, Trump suggested “Kung flu”. But this wasn’t the first time: Trump had used the phrase less than a month earlier on his campaign trail in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Words shape our understanding of the world. While naming a disease helps people conceptualise the threat, neologisms that downplay the severity of the illness, or link it with particular countries or communities, can cause real harm. The spread of fear can lead to hate and prejudice and misinformation that cause public health and other impacts. With today’s level of connectivity, where information circulates at breakneck speed, we all have a responsibility not to negatively contribute.