As a sign of how quickly the spread of new vocabulary, Merriam-Webster, a dictionary publisher based in Springfield, for the first time accelerated the approval process for years as usual and added to dictionary emergency set of 20 terms – such as contact tracing, community distribution, super distribution, social distance and quarantine itself.
Previously, the fastest word to enter the dictionary was AIDS, which took two years to appear in The New York Times in 1982 to enter Merriam-Webster. In comparison, COVID-19, a disease caused by the new corona virus, destroyed all records, from coins to dictionaries in 34 days. Soon the word rolled into the most searched word on the dictionary website.
“That was the first and only time we saw it,” said Peter Sokolowski, an editor at Merriam-Webster. “People are looking at the second before and the second after airing.”
These new words symbolize the shared human experience as people throughout the world wrestle with a new way of life. During tragedy, new funny slang can also foster humor and connection, as people zoom in and tweet from their living rooms.
Slang that appears, as in the catalog by English lexicographer Tony Thorne, showing the overlap between English speakers. Other words are more popular in certain countries.
In the United States, amidst extensive roasting and stress-eating, many describe their weight gain as “COVID 19,” “15 New Students” (first-year college students weighing 15 pounds may be at risk of wearing it).
Meanwhile, Australians have cute words, like “sanny” for hand sanitizer, “quaz” for quarantine, and “iso” for isolation (which, of course, requires “isobar” liquor to pass the time).
Slang often fades quickly. Merriam-Webster might wait to add “quarantini” – any cocktail repaired while living at home during social distance.
The dictionary sees its role as very important during times of crisis, said Sokolowski, because word search often surges after tragedy.
Merriam-Webster’s latest search data summarizes the wave of reactions that have flooded the public since mid-March. First appeared the word disease: epidemic, pandemic, coronavirus. Furthermore, the words of the government: draconian, lockdown, martial law. Finally the words of the community: hoarding, panic, force majeure (an unexpected state of “God’s action” that prevents the fulfillment of the contract).
Now, many are interested in words that are related to Work from home (or “WFH,” Merriam-Webster added Wednesday).
Interestingly, “lazy” has taken on a new meaning. No longer reserved only for someone who is lazy, now can also illustrate the opposite: coworkers who are active on Slack messenger.
People get “Zumped,” or discarded via Zoom video conferencing. And babies born nine months from now will become “invaders.”
Even with all the new words, there is still no exact term to describe the current situation at home, said Jesse Snedeker, a professor of linguistics and psychology at Harvard University. Most people, he said, felt constrained but not technically “in quarantine,” so they often gave up and said “how things are now” or “new realities.”
“I suspect it’s because we don’t agree, as a society, about what happened or we don’t want to be too clear about it because it’s disappointing,” he said in an email. “Strangely, we seem to have the word to end the era of non-quarantine / non-lock down: reopening. Maybe it’s because what we hope for, in the end, is clearer to us. “
Maybe that explains the sudden popularity of the phrase “new normal” among experts, politicians and experts describe life when the business reopens.
Some are bored.
“Just out of curiosity: What excitement does your family take when someone utters the phrase” new normal “?” Jay Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, tweeted this month.
The phrase made him cringe, he said over the telephone.
“Everything is really abnormal, but as long as we call it ‘normal’ it makes us feel better,” Wexler said. “In this day and age, everyone barks and tweets and updates their opinions constantly, and if you talk and talk and talk, it’s hard to find new ways to say something.”
Whether the words new coronavirus will continue to be used may depend on how long the pandemic lasts. Even so, some words have more endurance.
Previous historical crises have given birth to words and phrases which later changed. “Ground zero” arose after nuclear bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; later the phrase became synonymous with the Twin Towers site after the 9/11 attacks.
Now, the fate of the phrase “viral” might rise in the air. For Cooper, from Northeastern, it might have survived because many people had forgotten the original meaning and continued to use it to describe something shared online.
But Sokolowski said he might finish saying it, because the phrase could be “a reminder of a very unfortunate tragic time.”
Other slang may or may not be there for the long term: Someone who behaves irresponsibly during an outbreak can be called “morona” and “covidiot.” (Don’t be confused with “bro’s flu,” a male denier coronavirus that insists “it’s just the flu.”)
The two terms will make it come out in the wild, but “covidiot” is likely to win because it only sounds better, said Heather Littlefield, a Northeastern linguistics professor.
“It has something to do with how interesting it is,” Littlefield said. “It’s almost like the funniest or best fight of words.”
“Covidiot” might win the fight, but it still fades when social distance ends. It even contains a prime example of fast-going slang: “vidiot” is an insult in the 1950s, when many people were afraid of television, referring to someone who went crazy by watching too much TV, said Sokolowski.
Now, “vidiot” will no doubt be watching a party at Netflix’s house – and truly is considered a responsible citizen.
Naomi Martin can be contacted at [email protected].
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