How the Covid crisis is affecting our everyday language

Language is constantly evolving. Global events can influence it, as can ever changing trends. Right now, there’s one event that’s affecting all our lives: the Covid crisis. It comes with a particular vocabulary. Some of the terms already exist in the dictionary but have rarely been used. Others are newly coined. The question is: How many of these terms have come to stay?

There can be no doubt that the Covid crisis represents a completely new situation. Certainly, there have been crises and pandemics in the past and they have also influenced our use of language. But this is a global phenomenon in the modern world, which in a brief period of time has impacted our way of life and therefore also our use of language. The crisis is a topic that pervades nearly every area of life: politics, work and personal life.

As things stand, we are confronted by major problems, which mainly affect people’s health and the economy. But language is also important: it shapes our thinking and how we interact with others; it also reflects our society. Language helps us know what’s going on around us. So it can be illuminating to look at our vocabulary and how it has changed as a result of the crisis.

First, the word “coronavirus”. This is not a new term. In the course of the SARS epidemic (2002/2003), it was entered into the Duden dictionary of the German language, but was rarely used in public after the epidemic. The word "epidemic" and other technical terms such as "infection rate", "herd immunity" and "lethality" are also commonly used at present. However, to what extent they will be used after the crisis is debatable. Things will probably go the same way as after the SARS epidemic: as soon as issues such as viruses and pandemics no longer hit the headlines, people use the terms associated with them less frequently. Incidentally, the crisis has seen the term “Covid-19” enter the dictionaries.

As touched on earlier, some terms were already in circulation, but most people were not familiar with them. They include “triage”, which refers to the prioritisation of medical assistance: when medical resources are scarce, doctors and hospitals sometimes have to make difficult decisions. This is making people aware of the problem, as well as of the precarious conditions in many healthcare systems.

Other terms are not new, just newly composed. The ability to form compound nouns in German is not limited to the crisis, regardless of whether you write Covid crisis with or without a hyphen. Other newly coined terms include "corona baby", "corona hairstyle" and "corona graduate". While the first may be remembered only by parents, the second will probably disappear after the crisis, while the third will remain in the memory of those graduating in summer 2020 – exam or no exam. Many other compound nouns dominate both headlines and social media, such as "corona hysteria", "corona panic" and "corona bonds". These new words and compounds born of the current situation are not used commonly enough to make their way into dictionaries. Especially not after the crisis. One completely new word is "coronise", which means to subordinate everything to the Covid crisis. "Corona-free", on the other hand, simply describes the fact that you are not infected by the coronavirus.

Not every new word or compound contains "corona". Another new term, for example, is "spit shield” - the pronunciation of which calls for its very use. It is defined as the transparent protective visor used in some shops and establishments. One thing that is important in the time of the Covid crisis is social distancing. This has led to the formation of terms such as "socially distant queue" and "socially distant visit". In order to avoid infecting one another, people should keep their distance from each other. These words will probably also lose their relevance once the crisis is over. "Systemically relevant" is not a new term either, but it is often used in connection with lockdowns.

The crisis has also imported some Anglicisms into the German language. As with the German words, these are not new terms; they have only gained relevance thanks to the novel, unfamiliar situation. At the top of this list are "lockdown", "shutdown" and "home office". There are no good German equivalents for any of these. You could say "curfew" instead of "lockdown", but that would only refer to people’s freedom of movement. "Lockdown", however, targets the complete standstill of everyday life and the economy and describes a total cessation of all activity outside of one’s own home. Some people may think a "home office" is the same as "working from home", but this does not describe the same temporary arrangement of setting up an office at home. Employees and employers have long demanded the flexibility to work from home. Some see the crisis as an opportunity to drive this concept forward. It has also become clear that there is a lot of catching up to do in terms of digitisation.

The term "superspreader" has been used by epidemiologists for years, but for us laymen it is new. The Duden dictionary has not yet added it and the German translation offered on Wikipedia (“Superverbreiter”) is extremely cumbersome. A better German version was needed in the scandal surrounding the Tönnies meat company and in the Ischgl case, for example: virus disseminator. But is a translation even necessary? Hardly. Because of the broad media coverage, even those who do not speak English understand that a superspreader spreads viruses on a large scale. It is an emotionally charged term that is associated with recklessness and even unscrupulousness. However, whether the Anglicism will enter into common parlance as an insult is more than doubtful.

"Social distancing" is a new term. Although keeping one's distance in times of epidemics is not a new concept, the term "social distancing" only came to light in this crisis. It is a very difficult term to Germanise as the "social" in "social distancing" has a completely different connotation than in English. In German "social" means charitable, among other things, whereas in English it is more likely to refer to sociability.

In addition to new and old Anglicisms and technical terms, the crisis has also given rise to a different choice of words. Presidents Macron and Trump have used terms such as "invisible enemy" when talking about the virus. The word "war" has also been used to describe the fight against the virus. Such martial language is mostly used by heads of state to make people comprehend the seriousness of the situation. Certainly, this choice of words has an impact on the way people think about the current crisis. Some complain about scaremongering, while others are motivated to fully support the measures and restrict their activities.

Mask is a borrowed word from Arabic and means fool, farce or joke. Nowadays, this term does not evoke thoughts of carnival or Jim Carrey's 1994 comedy. Thanks to Covid-19, we have become experts in all things mask-related: we discuss protective, hygienic and respiratory masks and are even familiar with technical terms such as FFP2 and FFP3. By the time wearing a mask on public transport became mandatory, the nose and mouth covering had become a visible symbol of the pandemic. It is conceivable that in the near future we will not utter the word mask as lightly as we did before 2020.

The extent to which vocabulary will change after the Covid crisis ultimately depends on how our living conditions are permanently altered. If the crisis lasts much longer, many of these words will remain in use for an even longer period of time. If not, then most of them are likely to disappear.

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