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June 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

A Grim Cloud with a Linguistic Silver Lining …

Tim Bowen is a free-lance teacher trainer, materials writer and translator. His main interests in the field of language teaching and linguistics are etymology, philology and pronunciation. Email:


Most people would agree that 2020 was an exceptional year but for all the wrong reasons. ‘Normal’ life as we knew it came to an end for most people in early March. What had begun as an outbreak of a previously unknown viral illness in the Chinese city of Wuhan rapidly became an epidemic (from the Greek words ‘epi’ (on or upon) and ‘demos’ (the people) and then, on March 11th, the World Health Organisation pronounced it a pandemic (again, from Greek ‘pan’ meaning ‘all’. The concept had spread from a disease affecting some people to one affecting all the people, clearly something much more serious.

It is interesting to note that the word pandemic, first coined in 1666, has seen an exponential growth in its use since March 2020. Casper Grathwohl, the president of Oxford dictionaries, estimated that its use had increased by a staggering 57,000%. Quoted in an article on the BBC news website, Grathwohl noted “I've never witnessed a year in language like the one we've just had. The Oxford team was identifying hundreds of significant new words and usages as the year unfolded, dozens of which would have been a slam dunk (1) for Word of the Year at any other time. It's both unprecedented and a little ironic - in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other." (2)

It is certainly true that, along with all its awfulness, the pandemic has proved to be a rich source of new words or words that have been revived after being moribund for many years. On March 23rd, twelve days after the WHO’s pronouncement, the UK declared a complete lockdown, closing most shops, bars and restaurants and leisure facilities and requiring people to work from home. Prior to this, most people would only have encountered the term ‘lockdown’ as one used in the restricted contexts of either a prison riot when prisoners are kept in their cells or a USA-style campus shooting spree when terrified students and staff are locked in college building to protect them from a crazed gunman. Suddenly the word was on everyone’s lips and now, as we (at the time of writing) endure our third national lockdown, it seems wearisomely familiar.

In the early days of the pandemic, some of the more prominent faces seen during UK news bulletins argued somewhat forcefully that herd immunity was the best solution. This term, which unhelpfully seems to equate people with cattle, is based on the idea that the disease should be allowed to spread rapidly through the ‘herd’ and then we would all be free of it and immune for ever. Alas, coronavirus has proved impervious to that type of logic, as the case of Sweden has subsequently illustrated only too well. We were also informed that some people would be superspreaders, capable of spreading the virus far and wide through their irresponsible actions (e.g. going on a skiing holiday in Austria in the middle of a pandemic) while remaining asymptomatic (showing no symptoms) themselves. If we had come into contact with one of these people (perhaps sitting opposite them on the train into our essential work), we were urged to self-isolate or self-quarantine (the latter term derived from the Italian for forty, although, thankfully, a shorter period was suggested).

The term social distancing also appeared. Used in the 1930s by the sociologist Karl Mannheim as a way to describe the enforcement of power hierarchies, it entered our lives as a recommendation to maintain a two-metre distance from other humans when allowed into the outside world to buy food or medicine, to visit the doctor or to exercise. Adhering to social distancing clearly brought an end to hand-shaking, embracing, kissing and other forms of social greeting and, in desperation, we were forced into arguably safer alternatives such as elbow-bumping.

Social distancing and elbow-bumping quickly became part of something referred to in the media as the new normal (this term was coined by a tech investor in 2003 when talking about making money in times of crisis). Our new normal also required the wearing of face-masks (something of a tautology as where else could one wear a mask?). It is quite entertaining to consider that whereas entering a bank wearing a mask before March 2020 would have had the staff pressing the panic button, entering one without a mask would now produce a similar reaction.

In terms of technology, the new normal has led to an explosion of video conferencing as a result of working from home. While employees sit at home in jacket and tie above the desk and underpants below it, work meetings continue in this novel form via platforms such as Zoom. It is interesting to note that even ten years ago if you said to someone that you would see them on zoom the next day or you suggested zooming on Wednesday, you would have been met with a blank stare at best and a look of sympathy at worst. The word zoom itself gained popularity during the First World War when aviators started using it to describe the manoeuvres of their flying machines and acquired a further meaning with the appearance of zoom lenses in the 1930s. Zoom as a video communication platform started in 2011 but its use has mushroomed during the pandemic and the word will henceforth forever be associated with working from home.

It is likely that governments worldwide have been less than open at times with their citizens during the pandemic but the actions (or inaction) of the UK government have given rise to a terminology of their very own. We have been assured throughout that the government is following the science but exactly what science has never been made entirely clear. They insist that their aim is to flatten the curve of infections by only allowing us to interact with those in our support bubble (again, the latter is a term that would have been basically meaningless a year ago). They promote a vague sense of hope and optimism by the widespread use of imprecise terms such as within weeks, in a matter of months and by the spring and constantly talk of ramping up testing and rolling out contact tracing apps because these terms sound more proactive than ‘increasing’ and ‘introducing’.

The pandemic has also given rise to some new portmanteau words (otherwise known as blends). With foreign travel largely out of the question, there has been talk of people opting for safecations this year. However, taking such a holiday may not protect the unwary from random encounters with covidiots (people who flout social distancing rules, refuse to wear masks and deny that coronavirus even exists). You may, of course, seek solace in a quarantini (which the Urban Dictionary (2) defines as ‘a strong alcoholic beverage that is made when people are quarantined or otherwise locked up or trapped in a location for an extended period of time’).  The same source also cites the term coronacoaster (a blend of coronavirus and roller-coaster) and defines it as ‘the ups and downs of a pandemic. One day, you're loving your bubble, doing workouts, baking banana bread and going for long walks and the next you're crying, drinking gin for breakfast and missing people you don't even like’.

Whatever happens in 2021, there is little doubt that the resourcefulness of the teaching profession will get us through this unprecedented disruption of our normal working lives. Whether we will still be teaching online in some capacity in a year’s time is open to question but what is beyond dispute is that teachers everywhere have learnt some new skills and, for better or worse, we have all acquired some new vocabulary.

As a suggestion for use in class, teachers can give learners a list of these terms as a homework task and ask them to research their meanings and use online, or look the new terms up in

These are good language awareness activities and raise the issue of how dynamic language changes can be.

(1) This term comes from basketball. It is used here to mean ‘a certainty’.

(2) OED Word of the Year expanded for 'unprecedented' 2020, BBC

Published 23 November 2020



Please check the English Language Update for Teachers (C1-C2) course at Pilgrims website.

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