‘The strange way Covid has affected the way we talk’

Nov 22, 2020
Some words will never be the same again. Source: Getty

I have been thinking about the more subtle ways in which the pandemic has affected us, namely in the language of Covid-19. Many words that previously had no association whatever with the pandemic have been unwittingly hijacked by this virus.

Take the word ‘cluster’. To me the benign word association would be a cluster in a diamond ring, where a group of diamonds are arranged closely together. Or perhaps a cluster of grapes on a vine. But now a cluster is rather sinister – a group of Covid-19 patients (current or potential) who have somehow contracted the disease in a particular geographical area. Grouped together they are now a cluster.

Isolation is another. Already it is an ‘alone’ sounding word – evoking a sense of being in a solitary state – but it too has been hijacked into ‘self isolating’ – that state of being where the person suffering from, or potentially harbouring, the coronavirus is placed into mandatory isolation for a fortnight – either at home or in a quarantine hotel.

Distancing. Now ‘social distancing’. I was quite happy to have people keep their distance a little, someone breathing down my neck in a supermarket queue would get my hackles up, but now we must be 1.5 meters apart when out and about. I’m pretty good at it, but others don’t seem to have got the memo. In supermarkets and other areas of public gathering in enclosed spaces, we are provided with little circles on the ground to stand on so if we sneeze we won’t aerosol it into someone else’s mouth. So social distancing makes us think twice about a hug or any bodily contact. I’m wondering how young people have socially distanced sex. The mind boggles. The word ‘aerosol’ used to be applied to paint or deodorant. Now it is a toxic Covid sneeze.

Then there is the non-Covid cough. I’ve had the odd tickle in my throat and have nearly burst a blood vessel trying to hold it in while out in public. I now quickly tell those nearby, “I’ve got a cough but it’s not Covid!”. They glare back unconvinced. The “it’s not covid” explanation is quite popular and is trotted out on many occasions.

Then there is the hand washing and sanitising. I’ve done it obediently and my poor old hands are dry from it. So ‘sanitiser’ has also taken on a new meaning, as has hand wash. Both have been done in the past, but having it made a rule changes things. As does antiseptic wipes, which used to just be for wiping sticky post ice cream hands on grandchildren – they are now used to wipe shopping trolley handles, cafe table tops and steering wheels.

Cafes and restaurants. If you’re lucky enough to be in a state where you can go to one, you must sanitise, sign in (either pen and paper or a QR code) . A QR code has become a bit of new social must have. Very handy if you can find it on your phone (I have). Then a certain number of you (depending on what state you live in) can enjoy a meal together. You many be monitored by a Covid Marshall, another new customer service role. They monitor the numbers in the cafe, ensure safe social distancing and herd behaviour.

How many layers has your mask got? Is it washable, reusable or throwaway? Will it biodegrade in landfill or join the disposable nappies creating the sinkholes of the future? Masks. Pretty ones, disposable ones, ones that make you sweat and fog up your glasses. Necessary or not, I slap one on when needed as I’m a rule obeyer these days. I also try not to dislodge earrings whilst doing so.

Border restrictions. Who would have thought! Slicing up our great Australia into chunks of the states with or without coronavirus. Daily totals, deaths and infections have become a type of macabre arithmetic, which must be tallied up daily.

There are probably more words that have been unwittingly hijacked by this pandemic, and I’m sure you will tell me what they are. I will always associate these words, and their changed meaning with this very strange time in our lives. I often think how the word ‘surreal’ was overused in the Christchurch earthquakes a few years ago, and whenever I hear it I think of my poor home down and the piles of rubble everywhere.

Words evoke feelings and memory. Words define and describe us. My list of Covid-19 words will probably colour my memory of this time forever.

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What other words would you add to the list?

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