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4 pandemic terms we’ll still be using years from now

Like in previous periods of instability, people made up new words and phrases to keep up with a rapidly changing situation.

4 pandemic terms we’ll still be using years from now
[Photo: LOGAN WEAVER/Unsplash]

In the past year and a half, we’ve seamlessly added new terms to our vocabularies in order to describe our pandemic world.

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It’s no surprise that the word “COVID-19” was quickly added to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary by mid-March of last year. “For a word to go from nonexistent to defined and entered in 34 days isn’t just an unprecedented reflection of a hectic, dire moment in history,” journalist Stefan Fatsis wrote in Slate. “It also shows how dictionaries, including America’s oldest and most lexicographically conservative one, are battling for speed, authority, and readers online.”

But it’s not just deeply practical terms that have quickly become ubiquitous. We’ve also become familiar with phrases like “Zoom fatigue,” “the Before Times,” and “Blursday.” That’s because during particularly challenging times, there’s historically an increase in inventive vocabulary, developed to find levity in less-than-bright conditions.

But not every term that we’ve embraced will have staying power. As life begins to open up, we wanted to understand which phrases will stick around, and which will inevitably get whittled down. Will people even remember the frustrating experience of someone “Zoombombing” their conference or wonder why anyone would choose a “contactless” pickup option at the grocery? Maybe. Ben Zimmer, a linguist who heads the New Words Committee for American Dialect Society (ADS) and leads the organization’s selection of the “Word of the Year, says there’s a way to predict which phrases will stick around.

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According to Allan Metcalf, who originated the ADS’s “Words of the Year” recognition, there are four parameters that determine if neologisms and repurposed phrases like this year’s will have longevity. Together, these qualifications make up the “FUDGE scale,” which breaks down to “frequency of use” (how often a word is used), “unobtrusiveness” (how accessible a word is), “diversity of users” (how has a word’s usage appeared in different situations/with different people), “generation of other forms” (how has it evolved into new words), and “endurance” (over a period time, how it has continued to be used).

Here are a few terms that are likely to stick around for a while:

COVID

This shorthand for the virus, which did not exist over a year ago, “now has come to define our lives,” says Zimmer. The ADS named it as its “Word of the Year.”

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The neologism is shorter than having to say “COVID-19” or “the coronavirus” and it provides a basis for plenty of new words like “coronasomnia” (sleep problems during the pandemic), “coronials” (the generation conceived or born during the pandemic), and “covidiot” (someone who ignores safety advice about COVID-19).

Social media accelerated the speed at which Zimmer and his team could track the use of the term, particularly on Twitter. Within hours of the World Health Organization announcing the disease was called COVID-19, “you already saw people shortening COVID-19 to COVID,” he says. “This is where language change is happening these days, often extremely rapidly, because these things can get a global audience immediately.” Out of all four of these new words, COVID may have the longest staying power due to the widespread understanding of the term. (Covidiot, on the other hand, may not stick around as long.)

Doomscrolling

This word was used before the pandemic, but the toxic habit took on a new popularity this year, as more users felt saddled to their devices. “It’s the type of [word] that may just sort of be a memory of 2020,” says Zimmer. “But as long as people experience dread, [they’ll] reach out for something that is descriptive.” The term developed “a great resonance,” as Zimmer puts it, as its gained connection to people’s pandemic-situated lives: “It’s the type of word that people latched onto . . . very quickly, and they recognize it’s something in their own behavior [that] has a name.”

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Superspreader

Like a few other words from the pandemic, “superspreader” was not a term we heard a lot pre-2020. According to the American Dialect Society’s list, a “superspreader” is defined as “a patient or event responsible for spreading infection to many people.”

The phrase connotes the image of huge gatherings and flagrant bacchanals that later reveal strings of positive COVID-19 diagnoses. “Superspreader” felt especially timely and went hand-in-hand with what the ADS cites as one of the year’s most popular emojis: . But as cases fall and society reopens, it’s not certain if either will remain as useful.

Social distancing

Another ADS finalist for Word of the Year, the well-known phrase refers to separating yourself from others to mitigate COVID-19’s spread.

The phrase actually has roots dating back to 1957, but back then it had to do with how more aristocratic members of society could separate themselves from their lower-status counterparts, according to sociologist Karl Mannheim. “These are [words] that actually may have been used in epidemiology or other fields for centuries,” says Zimmer. While the current definition of social distancing will likely have some staying power, given its pervasiveness, there’s no guarantee its meaning won’t eventually shift again.

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About the author

Diana is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously, she was an editor at Vice and an editorial assistant at Entrepreneur

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