The subtlety of words in the age of corona

I’ve been watching a lot of news online these days to see how the coronavirus is effecting my home country, the U.S.A. Needless to say, it can be emotionally and psychologically exhausting, but it has also been linguistically fascinating because of the language used by news presenters, politicians and experts.

For example, the news people and politicians do not use the word quarantine. Why not? Perhaps because we tend to put isolated, single cases in quarantine and not an entire population. Also, the relationship of this word is too close to diseases. At the beginning, some people used the word lockdown; however, this was quickly discarded because lockdown happens when there’s a riot or escape attempt in prison, and all the prisoners are locked in their cells. What could news people and politicians say to advise people to stay in their homes, but not scare them with images of disease or incarceration? Shelter in place or a stay at home order. Shelter is a very nice word as it gives a sense of protection. And how often has an obligation to your partner, parent or child required you to go out when all you wanted to do was stay at home?

It’s also quite odd how the name of the virus itself has evolved. It has consistently been referred to as the coronavirus although President Trump did try out corona flu once during an interview. Sure, why not? Who hasn’t ever had the flu? It’s as innocuous as non-alcoholic beer. Unfortunately, this didn’t go over very well with the public. Coronavirus or Covid-19 has been consistently used throughout. Nowadays, I’ve heard some news presenters call it a disease, which I suppose it technically is, but this certainly sounds much more serious than a virus. Would it be the same in Catalan? Tell me, which sounds worse: un grip, un virus o una malatia?

It’s also interesting how common terminology in the world of virology has become. In fact, the U.S. and many other countries have seen an increase in armchair virologists, who graduated from the University of CNN, Wikipedia and (insert the name of your news website here). Everybody and their mother now knows what it means to flatten the curve, which otherwise might have been mistakenly understood to be a liposuction procedure. The same can be said about the concept of herd immunity. Herds are normally associated with large groups of cows, buffalo and other cattle, not people. However, our doctors of neither medicine nor PhDs know that herd immunity is when so many people in a population become immune to a disease, it is no longer a danger.

How about in your language? What kinds of words are being used to report on the coronavirus? Does it reflect a certain attitude? While you think about it, I will continue to shelter in place until we flatten the curve and hopefully achieve herd immunity soon.

Nancy Lee, responsable del Servei d’Idiomes d’UManresa-FUB

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