The power and resilience of language to adapt as it is buffeted, battered and bruised by the very world that creates it is quite incredible to behold. This year, we have seen brand new words and concepts that quite literally did not exist a few short months ago take shape, set up camp in our minds and roll off our tongues as easily as if they’d always been there. We have seen existing terms take on new meanings and senses as the current language assumes some of the burden of helping us make sense of the ‘new normal’ – a state that itself will necessarily be impossible to fully define for some while, if it can ever be fully defined at all. Other words and phrases have enjoyed an unprecedented resurgence in these strange times. Including, as it would happen, ‘unprecedented’. And, funnily enough, ‘in these strange times’, which has become so standard a feature of almost every email, both sent and received, that we might as well all add it to our signatures (kind regards in these strange times; yours sincerely in these strange times; with very best wishes in these strange times…you get the idea). (Perhaps ‘these times’ could also be ‘unusual’? Or ‘extraordinary’? Or ‘unparalleled’? Just to spice things up a bit?)
Since February, ‘pandemic’, ‘lockdown’, ‘national emergency’, ‘hunker down’ and ‘apex’ (that of the curve, not the predator) have all been trending as search terms on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary as the world struggles to wrap its collective head around how, exactly, life has flipped 180° in the space of just a few short months and what, actually, is virtually every single news article going on about. Collins Dictionary now features articles on the origins of the world ‘furlough’ (a term I sincerely believed had something to do with farming the first time I heard it), the difference between a ‘pandemic’ and an ‘endemic’ (hint: it’s not just that one’s got a ‘pa’ and one’s got an ‘e’ in it), and an enlightening read on ‘Who put the corona in the coronavirus?’ (sidebar: the fact that ‘corona’ is Latin for ‘crown’ – so a ‘coronavirus’ is literally a ‘crowned virus’ – provides a whole new and decidedly less terrifying visual medium through which to view this apparently quite regal virus thing).
Indeed, while ‘rapid response’ is a concept we typically associate with the medical profession, the speed with which lexicographers have reacted to the coronavirus pandemic has been quite astounding given the usual relatively infrequent rate at which new words are added to a dictionary’s hallowed (web)pages. In mid-March, Merriam-Webster released a post on its website outlining the new words it has already added to its dictionary in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with ‘COVID-19’ (‘a new name for a new disease, coined as an abbreviated form of coronavirus disease 2019‘) being one of the newly minted additions. Not all of the words, however, are strictly hot off the press – even though they might be first encounters for many of us. For instance, while an entirely bizarre and ostensibly new concept for the vast majority of people, ‘social distancing’ (‘the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people or of avoiding direct contact with people or objects in public places during the outbreak of a contagious disease in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection’) in fact had its first known use in this sense back in 2003. ‘Self-quarantine’ (‘to refrain from any contact with other individuals for a period of time (such as two weeks) during the outbreak of a contagious disease usually by remaining in one’s home and limiting contact with family members’) similarly first reared its head just a couple of years earlier in 2001. It’s strangely (unusually/extraordinarily/unparalleled-l – no) comforting to know that past-humanity has in fact experienced these concepts before – to know that, during at least one other point in the (albeit very recent) past, someone or some people have experienced something akin to this before. It’s at least some degree of reassurance that we have not been – that we are not – alone.
I think that’s what strikes me most about the response of dictionaries and their makers to the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. The additions and the explanations and the articles are not purely marketing ploys. They aren’t there purely for the sake of it, or purely to entertain, or because there is some kind of competition going on among lexicographical circles to see who can add the most hot new words to their respective dictionaries the fastest. Really, the changes that are being made and the articles that are being written are there to provide us with the clearest picture of what is going on at this very moment. As Merriam-Webster affirms, ‘a dictionary’s mission is to give accurate information about the current vocabulary of a language’ – ‘current’ meaning quite literally right now. And it couldn’t be clearer that, right now, the world is crying out for clarity. For a steady footing. For something simple and plain and straightforward to hold onto, as we find ourselves in a situation that, at this point, is anything but. That’s what dictionary definitions are – words in their simplest garb, sitting on pages or reverberating through the air around us and offering up their pure, uninhibited selves, asking us to accept them just as they are.
If there was ever a time for clear communication, now is surely that time. For our part, we have seen this in the tone of the memos and emails and blog posts we translate for our customers, offering reassurances of continuity and of necessary steps being taken, keeping customers and colleagues alike in the loop. But it is not just in business that we need to be more transparent with each other than ever before. This is a time – quite possibly the best time we’ve ever had – for us to be open and honest with each other, and to let those around us know how we are feeling. To say if we need to, plainly and truthfully, ‘actually no. I’m not alright right now.’ Expressing any feeling, be it fear, frustration, confusion, gratitude, love, or perhaps even relief, when we are in the grip of a global pandemic unlike anything anyone currently alive has experienced before, is perhaps best simply heard and appreciated, and not judged or mocked. Speaking of appreciating things, I personally enjoyed the fact that, alongside ‘lockdown, ‘appreciate’ features on leo.org’s list of trending words from the past week. And I hope we can all take something from the fact that, according to Collins, while searches for ‘quarantine’ are down by 14.1% and ‘COVID-19’ by 32.1%, ‘love’ is up 7.2%. Let’s keep that rising, shall we?
So, in these…irrefutably peculiar times, when ‘coronavirus’ is the name on everybody’s lips, ‘lockdown’ has left many of us feeling low, and ‘novel’ has taken on the new meaning of ‘not previously identified’ (as well as, incidentally, being something not a small amount of people harbour aspirations to write while in aforementioned lockdown), let’s take some comfort in the fact that there are some words for this, even if we might feel there aren’t. Here’s a virtual clap for all the wordsmiths out there, keeping us well-defined.