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Linguists explain how COVID vocabulary spread around the world

It didn’t take long for us to adopt these words and describe our “unprecedented” reality.
Published: Mar. 25, 2021 at 9:12 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Nonessential. Social distance. Quarantining.

They’re among the top five most searched terms across the country between March and May 2020, according to Dictionary.com. Over the past year, words that were both uncommon and unheard of have come to define our lives. Even kids can define them.

“You kind of just learn the words because the words are happening, and they’re using them in the news and stuff,” a second grader at Tower Rock Elementary said.

Anja Wanner, an English language and linguistics professor at UW-Madison, agreed. “Children spend so much time with adults these days,” she said. “They get a lot of input that’s not designed for kids.”

Tom Purnell, a UW-Madison professor and editor of the journal by the American Dialect Society, said the coronavirus is “in the face of everybody. You have to confront it, regardless of what age you’re at.”

But how did a new set of words reach and get the approval of millions of Americans? Take the word “COVID,” for example.

Purnell argued, the spread didn’t only occur top-down from officials.

“People will tweet COVID. Administrators will use the term COVID. You have hospital people using it. Families using it. You have all these different dimensions using the same term. That alignment all of sudden reinforces this usage,” he said. “So then it actually makes sense. That’s the word.”

Wanner compared the present-day language phenomenon to that of the two world wars, which is similar in global reach. Even still, she said the coronavirus is “unprecedented.”

“It’s a word that’s overused and overexposed,” Wanner said, “But, yes, I think it is [unprecedented] because it’s a collective, worldwide experience. That’s one thing, but it happens in a time of social media.”

She continued, “When COVID-19 became the label that everybody was supposed to use, that was a big step. There was this big pandemic that we didn’t know much about, but we had a label for it. That’s a human need to label and name things. That puts you in linguistic control.”

Looking years down the road, Purnell said he is curious how these terms will transform.

“It’d be nice to see how kids use ‘flatten the curve’ in the lunchroom to talk about, say, ‘I don’t want any cheese sandwiches. We’re getting too many cheese sandwiches. We need to flatten this curve,’” he said.

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