From covidiot to maskhole: Language of the pandemic

Back in February, nobody knew what blursday meant, and the word “quarantini” looked like a misprint. But when COVID-19 emerged and shook the world, the introduction of new words to our ever-expanding vocabulary came along with it.

In Radio 4’s Word Of Mouth Professor Tanya Byron discusses the language of COVID-19 with medical historian and author of The Pandemic Century, Mark Honigsbaum. Here are a few things we learnt about the language of the pandemic.

According to Honigsbaum, an epidemic is when a disease transmits above what is normal. A pandemic is when a new disease spreads in two or more regions at the same time – encompassing a wide number of people, or even the world.

Kangaroo words are where you take out some letters from a word to create a synonym. One of the most prominent right now is: pandemic = panic.

Kangaroo words:

These are nothing to do with marsupials. They occur when you take out some letters from a word to create a synonym. One of the most prominent right now is “pandemic = panic”.

The issue with labelling

Yes we love a good label, especially in the office fridge (oh, the nostalgia). But not all labels are for the best. Honigsbaum discussed the damaging implications that can occur with labels.

What first struck him about the way we spoke about COVID-19? “The sense of disbelief and denial…once people did start to realise it was serious, there was an attempt to say oh it’s the Wuhan virus or as Donald Trump said, it’s the China virus, an attempt to say it’s over there – it’s ‘their’ and not ‘our’ problem.” Klung Flu, anyone?


The origins of words

A lot of words that are new to the general public – in particular those to do with epidemiology – are not new to those in specialist areas. Here are the most common ones we now use:

Herd Immunity: the resistance of a certain virus to spread if a high enough proportion of the population are immune to it. Usually this is the case with vaccines; with COVID-19 it’s the case when enough people get the disease.

Furlough: a military word, often used when a soldier goes away on leave.

Super spreader: this is not an epidemiological word but one that has entered the mainstream through the media, according to Honigsbaum. This term isolates an individual and rids him or her from a “sense of collective responsibility” according to Professor Tanya.

Social-distancing: can be hard to understand. Are we talking three metres or one?

New words for new times

One of the best things about the British is our sense of humour and our ability to make light of the most dire of situations. We take a look at some of our favourite plays on words during Covid-19…

Blursday: when all the days blur into one another and you’re not sure if it’s Sunday or Thursday

Quarantinini: what started off as a concoction of Vitamin D, orange juice and vodka for an immune-building drink, is now just any cocktail you drink during lockdown

Loxit: the exiting from lockdown and its rules


Quarantinini: any cocktail you drink during lockdown!
Lockstalgia (Times): we may look back fondly upon the time of lockdown and save up stories to tell our grandchildren

Covidiot: someone behaving irresponsibly or flouting government instructions in the face of the virus

Rona: American rapper Cardi B coined this phrase in a video that quickly went viral online

Covidiot: someone who is behaving irresponsibly or flouting government instructions in the face of the virus

Morona: a person behaving like an imbecile directly because of the outbreak

Coronalusional: suffering from disordered thinking as a result of, or during, the COVID-19 crisis

Doomscrolling: scrolling through social media and seeing a continuous stream of doom and gloom

Zumped: ‘dumped’ by a partner via video link [Zoom] or online

Ronavation: renovation or refurbishment during lockdown; an Instragram hashtag

Quaran-stream: binge-watching several TV series and/or movies while in lockdown

Spendemic: the increase in online shopping while confined during the coronavirus

Maskhole: someone refusing to wear a mask despite notices being in place

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