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How ‘the rona’ —ahem, coronavirus— is changing our vocabulary

Four months ago, as the new year neared, the only people in America who regularly used the phrase "social distancing" were epidemiologists.

San Diego, 26 March 2020 (tca/dpa) — Four months ago, as the new year neared, the only people in America who regularly used the phrase “social distancing” were epidemiologists.

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In times of crisis—world wars, natural disasters, financial collapses—words and phrases crop up to form a shared language about what we’re all going through. So, too, the coronavirus pandemic.

“My colleagues (in the American Dialect Society) have been feverishly writing down everything we might want to nominate for Word of the Year when the vote is taken next January,” said Grant Barrett, co-host of the San Diego-based public radio show “A Way with Words.”

He mentioned several possibilities: “lockdown,” “self-quarantine,” “Wuhan,” and “rona” (shorthand for coronavirus, as in: “Stay away from him. He’s got the rona”).

And, of course, “social distancing,” which Barrett and his radio co-host, Martha Barnette, believe probably has the best chance of remaining part of our regular lingo even after the virus vanishes.

“Look how fast it’s become a thing everybody is talking about,” Barnette said.

“Those are the ones that last, the ones that arrive almost without trying and are on everyone’s lips.

“It’s not the clever coinage that lasts.”

So, nice try “Quarantini” (a cocktail made while stuck at home with whatever’s on hand). According to word mavens, your days are probably numbered.

Just what “social distancing” will mean to future generations, though, remains to be seen. In an earlier form, “social distance” was the degree of rejection or acceptance between individuals, usually based on class, race, gender, or ethnicity.

A runaway virus had nothing to do with it.

Richard Lederer, the author of a regular San Diego Union-Tribune column about language, said “quarantine” has morphed across time, too.

Its original definition pertained to the 40 days a widow was allowed to remain in her deceased husband’s home before it could be seized by debtors.

Then the word moved offshore, to ships, to describe the 40 days of isolation required of a docked vessel thought to be carrying disease vectors along with the cargo.

Somewhere along the line, the connection between “quarantine” and 40 days disappeared, Lederer noted in a recent column, and the word’s meaning “broadened to signify any period of sequestering.”

And these days it has a new appendage: self-quarantine.

Such is the way language grows, especially during war-time, which according to some people is what we’re in, with coronavirus as the enemy.

“War is a huge generator of new words,” Lederer said in a phone interview.

“It’s drastic, calamitous, and often international.”

People brought together in a crisis, for a common purpose, create new jargon to make what they’re going through more understandable, if not more palatable, and then they take it home with them.

He noted that “deadline” dates to the Civil War, when it was an actual line (a fence or ditch) around a prison. Anyone who crossed it could be shot and killed.

Among World War II’s many additions to the dictionary: cannibalize, clobber, ginormous, blitz.

In an upcoming “A Way with Words” show, Barrett and Barnette will tackle another phrase that’s finding renewed currency: “cabin fever,” the irritability and restlessness people feel from being in isolation for an extended time.

The radio hosts said the origin of the phrase is unknown, although it’s clearly from the American frontier, where it apparently referred early on to people sheltering in place to avoid infectious disease.

“Cabin Fever,” a 1918 novel by B.M. Bower, popularized the phrase. (“Stir crazy” comes from around the same time, spun off from earlier usage of “stir” as a word to describe jail or prison.)

More recently, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. show how words come and go. “Axis of Evil” and “weapons of mass destruction” have mostly faded, while “9/11” remains as shorthand for everything that happened that day and everything that changed because of it.

“9/11” was the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year in 2001, and finished third in the 2000s Word of the Decade, behind “Google” and “blog.”

“Ground Zero” endures, too. Its usage dates to World War II and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan by the U.S. military.

A report in 1946, the year after the war ended, used the phrase to describe where the bombs landed. (It used “air zero” to describe where the planes were when they dropped them, but that one never caught on.)

Now what had started out in 2001 as a way to describe the devastation at the World Trade Center is regularly used to identify the starting points of all kinds of things — including, now, coronavirus outbreaks.

Recent news stories from China have referred to “patient zero,” reportedly the first human to come down with COVID-19.

And Barnette said she was struck by the wording of a New York Times story this week that looked at a cluster of cases from a gathering in Westport, Conn.

The story referred to the gathering as “party zero.”

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