Moving from the very beginning of the pandemic (the "Before Times") and our early response to it through the peaks and troughs of the various waves in countries throughout the world, and ending with a contemplation of what the "After Times" might look like, Wayne Grady's Pandexicon takes us on a journey through the pandemic and illuminates both how this new language has unfolded and how it has changed the way we think about ourselves and each other.
Illness changes everything. Natural disasters tend to make us mistrust nature. Human-caused calamities make us mistrust each other. During a pandemic, which is both natural and human-spread, we mistrust everything. Including ourselves. For all of our adaptability, our species doesn’t like change, and we respond especially badly to rapid change. As soon as we can, we employ our much-vaunted ingenuity to make our new surroundings familiar, and one of the ways we do that is through language. When we come up with a new word or adapt an existing phrase to describe the new phenomenon—a war, a school of thought, a pandemic—we are domesticating change, taking the threat out of it. We don’t say that during the war we bombed hospitals; we say we defended democracy and invented the ballpoint pen.
When we come up with a new word or adapt an existing phrase to describe the new phenomenon—a war, a school of thought, a pandemic—we are domesticating change, taking the threat out of it.
How can we harbor bad memories of a war that gave us Spam and the jeep? After the Middle Ages, the misery of the Black Death—which wiped out half of Europe and a third of the Middle East in the fourteenth century, and surged again in the seventeenth—faded when we began using “plague” to describe any minor annoyance. As in Philip Larkin’s novel A Girl in Winter, when the main character complains that “the pipes aren’t hot. They never are,” another replies, “It’s a plague.” Or when Ottessa Moshfegh writes, in the New Yorker, that whether she was “drinking at a bar or alone at home, self-centered dissatisfaction plagued me.” Percy Bysshe Shelley employed the term “pandemic” to mean something like “carnal”: “That Pandemic lover who loves rather the body than the soul, is worthless.” When illness sounds more like everyday language, it ceases to be a disaster and becomes the new normal.
As Susan Sontag writes in Illness as Metaphor, “The very names of . . . diseases are felt to have a magic power.” And so we avoid using them. On countless tweets and TikToks, the word “pandemic” became the “Panda Express,” or the “panini,” or the “Pandora,” or the “Panasonic.” No one worried about a panda or was vaccinated against panini bread. We were safe. We didn’t say “a vaccination”; we called it a shot (in the US), or a jab (in the UK and Australia). “Quarantine” was drawled into “cornteen”; what could be more common than corn? “Coronavirus” became “the Rona” or “Miss Rona,” the slightly wild woman who lives on a dark street at the edge of town. A friend writing about Omicron called it “the Omigod variant.” In Sweden, Covid-19 was called “the Corona,” which means “crown,” or kronor in Swedish, which is that country’s currency and national emblem. In the US, when it was mostly eighty-year-olds who were dying, Covid-19 was known as “the Boomer Remover”—more sinister than Miss Rona, but still funny.
Humorous euphemisms allow us to talk about what frightens us without wallowing in morbidity; we can discuss the pandemic without having to think about it. For a time. When people in their twenties started dying, no one called it “the Zoomer Remover”; the disease reverted to being Covid-19, or more familiarly, Covid. As the body count rose, jokes became hollow. We switched back to calling the crisis what it was, because the pandemic had become more familiar to us than the euphemisms.
Germans created more than 1,200 new words with which to talk about the pandemic, from Ausgangsbeschränkung (going-out restriction, or lockdown) to Anderthalb-Meter-Gesellschaft (one-and-a-half-meter society, or social distancing).
“By being able to talk about the crisis,” says Christine Möhrs, a linguist at the Leibniz Institute for the German Language, “we reduce our fears. We can share our insecurities.” Germans created more than 1,200 new words with which to talk about the pandemic, from Ausgangsbeschränkung (going-out restriction, or lockdown) to Anderthalb-Meter-Gesellschaft (one-and-a-half-meter society, or social distancing). France introduced the term quatorzaine to refer to the fourteen-day isolation period after exposure to the virus, and in the Netherlands, the frantic hoarding of groceries was called hamsteren—hamstering. We hamstered items we thought would soon be in short supply. Families hamstered batteries, toilet paper, and coffee; countries hamstered vaccine doses.
Around the world, the pandemic brought aspects of our lives to light in new ways. Handwashing, an act ordinarily performed without thinking, became a conscious, specific procedure complete with precise instructions. In China, schoolchildren made hats with ninety-centimeter brims; when two brims touched, the wearers were socially distanced. In Canada, a face mask was no longer something hockey dads bought at Canadian Tire; it became “PPE” (personal protective equipment), something the country’s chief medical officer urged everyone to wear in public.
Cloth face masks have become fashion accessories and even collectible art objects. Our friend in San Miguel, Lena Bartula, an American fabric artist who owns an art gallery there, created beautiful oversized cubrebocas—mouth-covers, the new Spanish word for face masks—which she wore and also mounted on the wall above her Mexican huipils. She called them “artifacts from the time in between.” When life deals us lemons, we use them to make art.
And like art, a pandemic alters the way we think about ourselves and each other. The day after we returned from Mexico, a neighbor who was making cloth masks for her family and friends gave us two.
And like art, a pandemic alters the way we think about ourselves and each other.
There were instructions on YouTube for making face masks out of old T-shirts, but our neighbor’s masks were things of beauty. They had white fabric linings, pipe cleaners sewn in to bend over the nose, and elastic ear loops. There was a dark, roses-on-black pattern for me and a lighter, forget-me-not one for my wife, Merilyn. Our university town wasn’t locked down yet, but face masks and social distancing were strongly recommended, and stores were limiting the number of customers allowed in at a time. We walked downtown with our masks on, feeling protected but a little self-conscious; mine was a bit small and made my ears stick out. Our glasses steamed up. My nose became stuffed and runny. Not everyone we saw was wearing a mask, and some of those who were had pulled them down below their noses; others had them under chins so they could smoke or drink take-out coffee. Restaurant patios were still open, but not to capacity. Groups of young people passed us, yelling and carrying on in a way that was likely to spray globules of virus-laden moisture everywhere. They seemed oblivious to what was going on in the world around them. Or perhaps they were making a statement, we thought—town and gown, us and them, timid compliers and youthful rebels. They probably weren’t saying to themselves that they didn’t care if we died. But they were behaving that way.
Some of that divisive thinking will remain with us, just as some Covid variant will very likely always be a source of concern, and the new vocabulary will remain in the language as connotations, if not as denotations, of our collective ordeal. We have always patted our pockets when leaving the house—first it was for wallet and keys; then it was for wallet, keys, and phone; now it’s for wallet, keys, phone, and face mask. When the Covid crisis is over, if it is ever over, we will still check our pockets for face masks when we go out or find an old N95 crumpled up in a hall table drawer and think, “Oh, yes, I remember those days.” When we see a group of people standing together in a park, we will count them, and notice how far apart they are keeping. Like ballpoint pens and Spam, our new habits will persist into the After Times, just as, after the First World War, no veteran lit three cigarettes with a single match. In 2020, I watched in sympathy and horror as protesters across the US gathered to commemorate the murder of George Floyd, but part of me was thinking, “They aren’t social distancing.”
New phrases entered our daily vocabularies: self-isolation, community spread, social distancing.
A person with a disease, writes Virginia Woolf in “On Being Ill,” is confronted with the poverty of the language to convey the immensity of their sickness, and is “forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other... so to crush them together that a brand-new word in the end drops out.” She adds that the new word will probably “be something laughable.” And so we invented “hydroxymoron,” “coronnial,” and “Covexit.”
Terminology that had formerly been used by health professionals—“immunocompromised,” “underlying health conditions”—began showing up in newspaper headlines. Old familiar phrases took on new and sinister dimensions. Companies that didn’t “pivot” didn’t survive. Variants caused an “uptick” in cases. I’m guessing that after Covid-19, families will think a long time before putting their elderly parents in long-term care facilities.
I have gathered, in this book, some of the terms that kept appearing in newspapers and online pandemic coverage to form a kind of lexicon of our shared experience. I have omitted most catchwords, like “the Rona,” “maskne” (the skin condition that frontline workers got from wearing face masks for twelve hours a day), and “covidiot” (someone who refuses to take precautions against being infected or infecting others). Such terms flared up in the fevered darkness of our coronaviral night, illuminated a moment or a scene, and faded again into obscurity when the situation that gave them a stage moved on to other theatres. “The Rona” appeared for a few weeks and then disappeared from use. And “maskne” cleared up with a bit of antiseptic cream; with patients dying around them, no one complained about blemishes behind their ears. “Covidiot” gave way to “anti-masker” and “anti-vaxxer,” which were less funny but more descriptive. I have tried to keep to words that will live on, as “jeep” and “apocalypse” are still with us from previous disasters. Will temporary disorientation now be referred to as “brain fog”? Will we describe the sky above Mexico as being “face-mask blue”?
Did you keep a list of the words coined by Covid? Wayne Grady did! They're deftly woven into a journal/timeline, taking us through two years of surrealism and limbo.—Margaret Atwood
This exploration of the many new terms of the Covid-19 pandemic provides insight into the ways an ever-evolving vocabulary helped us cope with our anxiety and adapt to a new reality
When the pandemic struck in early 2020, Wayne Grady started collecting the words and phrases that arose from our shared global experience. Some, such as "uptick" and "pivot," had existed before but now took on new meaning, and others, such as "covidivorce," "quarantini," "covexit," and "shecession," appeared for the first time, their meaning instantly clear. Through this new vocabulary, we became more able to adapt to change, to domesticate it in a sense, and to reduce our fears.
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