Culture

Susie Dent counts down the new words in our post-pandemic vocabulary

From 'covidiot' to 'quarantini' and beyond – how COVID-19 is changing our language

Like other major events of the past, Covid-19 has spawned a lexicon all of its own. Much of it was trailed by previous events – ‘self-isolation’ dates back a century or more, when it referred to such dangers as the flu and leprosy. ‘Quarantine’ began during the time of the Black Death, when crews of ships arriving in Venice had to wait before coming on shore. The minimum number of days required was 40, and the period was known in Venetian dialect as quarantena, from quaranta, ‘40’.

But there have been many new additions to the dictionary that have been fuelled by the pandemic. ‘WFH (working from home)’ is now in the Oxford Dictionaries, as are ‘hot zone’, ‘flatten the curve’, ‘PPE’ and ‘contact tracing’.

Then there are some lighter-hearted expressions, an effort to lift our sombre mood. A ‘covidiot’ is someone who wilfully flouts the rules of social distancing. A ‘quarantini’ is an experimental cocktail made from ingredients found at the back of the cupboard, and ‘Covid-15’ is the 15 pounds gained from nervously eating our way through the fridge. ‘Doughverkill’ is the new way of describing the surfeit of pictures posted on social media of home-baked sourdough, while a ‘dinfluencer’ is someone who similarly photographs every supper created from the remnants of their lockdown larder.

The writer Michael Hogan has noted some new ones on the list. ‘Bored-eaux’ is the wine drunk when there’s nothing better to do, while ‘co-runner virus’ is the spread of the infection by heavily-panting runners who leave hundreds of droplets in their wake.

It’s hard to say whether any will last the course, but as we ride the coronacoaster, the only certainty is that there will be more to come.

Coronavirus

The name of this type of pathogen has been around for a while – different strains of the common cold and flu are all coronaviruses. The name was chosen because of their characteristic appearance under a microscope, which recalls a solar corona: a small disc of light that appears around the sun.

Furlough

A temporary suspension of employment, or leave of absence, granted to an employee. The word was first recorded in the 17th century, when it was used of soldiers given permission to be absent from duty for a certain period of time. Its origin is the Dutch verlof and the German verlaub, both meaning permission given as a sign of trust. This connection makes ‘furlough’ a sibling of ‘leave’, which can be used in much the same way.

Pandemic

Aword no one wanted to use, but which is now everywhere. The ubiquity of ‘pandemic’ is perhaps fitting, as the word pan itself means ‘all around’. You’ll find it in ‘panorama’, an all-round view, ‘panacea’ (a total cure), and the rarer word ‘apanthropy’ (a dislike of all society). The second part of pandemic is the Greek demos, ‘people’, also found in ‘democracy’ and ‘demographic’. A pandemic therefore affects the whole world; the word ‘epidemic’ simply means upon – epi – the people.

Vaccine

The term was inspired by the work of the 18th-century English doctor Edward Jenner, who heard rumours that milkmaids never caught a disease called smallpox. Jenner wondered whether that was because they regularly came into contact with cowpox, a disease that affects cows’ udders and whose effect on humans is similar to mild smallpox. Jenner began to experiment with injections of small amounts of the cowpox virus – it was thanks to him that smallpox was eventually wiped out and that the word ‘vaccine’ was born, from the Latin vacca, ‘cow’.

Zoom

A word that first meant to move very fast, as of a buzzing insect, ‘zoom’ is at least 200 years old. Born for its sound, it later embraced the movement of a camera to magnify a shot. Time will tell whether a new, trademarked, sense of the word will enter the dictionary for the video meeting platform we’ve all had to master.

Susie Dent and Gyles Brandreth host the podcast series Something Rhymes With Purple, available now on all podcast providers

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