6 COVID-19 terms that would have made no sense in January

These words and phrases about how we work and live have become ubiquitous in the past several months.

6 COVID-19 terms that would have made no sense in January
[Photo: LanaStock/iStock]

Perhaps at some point in 2022 (or sooner, if you’re a glass-half-full kind of person), we will have COVID-19 firmly in our rearview mirror. Then, there will be a clear delineation between the pre- and post-pandemic eras. Until that comes to pass, we can mark the months of quarantine in other ways, like with the words we use every day.


“The impact of COVID-19 on our lives and our language is an ongoing story,” the authors of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) wrote in a statement. “As we learn more about the nature of the virus and the social impact of the pandemic, the associated vocabulary changes, and the terms themselves change in meaning and usage.” To that end, they even switched up the 20-year practice of revealing a selection of new words and definitions on a quarterly basis. This year, the OED report had additions in April and July.

“This particular crisis has brought a mixture of new coinages and the adaptation of terms that already existed to talk about the pandemic and the impact on the world,” said Fiona McPherson, editorial manager and public liaison of OED Management, back in April.

For example, although plenty of desk jockeys understood “wfh” to be shorthand for “work from home,” for years, the abbreviation has become part of common parlance since many offices across the country and the world shut down in early spring.

Here are some others that have become more widely used (or even overused?) thanks to COVID-19. Note: not all of these have made their way into the OED—yet.

Essential worker

Of course, any employee will tell you they’re essential to their organization. Especially now as the unemployment rate continues to hit record highs. However, a new type of essential worker emerged during the pandemic. Although it varies based on where you live, the most common subsets of essential workers are medical staff, emergency response personnel, grocery store workers, and delivery drivers.


Elbow bump

According to the OED: “a gesture (usually of greeting or farewell) in which two people lightly tap their elbows together as an alternative to a handshake or embrace, esp. in order to reduce the risk of spreading or catching an infectious disease.” Hugging has been strongly discouraged during times of social distancing and there’s been speculation as to whether we’ll ever shake hands again. What we know now is that the barriers broken by the social cue a nonverbal handshake sends need to be rethought—especially because we can’t exactly do that on a video call.

Zoom fatigue

This brings us to the next now-common feature of the pandemic. Even those who aren’t dedicated remote workers (like stay-at-home parents with school-age children) have found that Zoom and other video calling platforms have been front and center during quarantine. But for employees of organizations large and small, videoconferences among “quaranteams” have been both a necessity to get stuff done—and a nicety to connect when everyone was isolated.

In the early days of figuring out exactly how to work remotely, check-ins were so frequent among some employee groups that a new term surfaced. “Zoom fatigue is real” became the catchphrase du jour around April, and of the months that ensued. Now we know the reasons why it taxes our brains and what to do about it, but we’re no less fatigued by the thought of another Zoom.


An occupational hazard, if you will, that the default conferencing platform started to experience trolls breaking into calls with graphic content through screen sharing. A glaring example occurred early on when a “wfh happy hour” between VC Hunter Walk and journalist Casey Newton got Zoombombed. Chipotle also had to shut down a public Zoom chat when one of the attendees pushed porn to hundreds of participants, according to a New York Times report. This is why we can’t have nice things, even while working during quarantine.


And speaking of Zoom, one of the ways many began using the service was to have a virtual happy hour in lieu of heading to a bar to knock back a couple of cocktails with colleagues. It’s hard to tell if the original mention of the quarantini was a hashtagged reaction to on-camera drinking, but the quarantini appeared on Twitter on March 13 as simply “It’s just a regular Martini but you get to drink it alone in your home.” From there, it went viral on multiple social platforms and inspired a slew of libations.



Maybe it’s fatigue from too many video calls, maybe it’s one too many quarantinis, but remote work in the time of the pandemic has spurred many to work longer hours. Without commutes, office environments, and other clear parameters, the days and weeks just run together. Although the pandemic didn’t create “Blursday” (the term’s been around since 2007, albeit with a different meaning) it understandably gained traction through our collective experience of quarantine.

Author Heidi Pitlor even wrote about this phenomenon in an essay for LitHub, about COVID-19-inspired ennui and general degradation of all sense of time. (Her friend wrote a Facebook post that encapsulated the phenomenon: “For those who have lost track, today is Blursday the fortyteenth of Maprilay.”)

Will these terms stick with us in the aftermath of the pandemic? Possibly, although none seem to bear the gravitas or general usefulness of WW II’s “snafu” (Situation Normal All Fucked Up) or the Vietnam War’s “clusterfuck” (a mishandled or disorganized situation).

In his article on common language and creativity, Ronald Carter, a former professor of modern English language at the University of Nottingham, noted that “verbal play is often undertaken for humorous purposes, serving in part to bring people closer together,” as well as challenging the “normal” view of things. So while you’re donning your PPE (hopefully steering clear of ‘maskne’) and keeping an eye on your sourdough before you click a link for another virtual meeting, remember that “we are all in this together” and our words can unite us even as we work in the solitude of our homes.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.