Corona-speak in any language


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


“Everyone who thinks at all has noticed that our language is practically useless for describing anything that goes on inside the brain.”
– George Orwell

If you’re in Germany, there are clear choices even in a pandemic. There’s the alltagsmaske (everyday mask). The schnutenpulli (literally, snout sweater a warmer mask for cold weather). The gesicht­s­kondom (literally face condom, for a trendier mask).

Then there’s mindestabstandsregelung (minimum-distance regulation) or the more exact anderthalbmeter­gesellschaft (one-and-a-half-meter society) to describe social distancing rules. There’s even Glühweinstandhopping (hopping between mulled-wine stands).

I know all this from reading a wonderful report in The Washington Post. Luisa Beck wrote from Berlin that Germans have coined more than 1,200 words “to describe the rules and realities of life in the time of the novel coronavirus”. She went on to acknowledge that German is not alone in enhancing its vocabulary to account for the experiences and effects of this 21st century pandemic. “Over the past year,” she pointed out, “languages all over the world have had to expand and adapt to address the pandemic and the lives it has upended. The French adopted ‘quatorzaine’ for a 14-day isolation period, and the Dutch use ‘hamsteren’ to describe a frantic, hamster-paced stockpiling of supplies”.

It’s easy for Germans because they routinely use composite words. In May 2020, the BBC said Germany’s seemingly endless policy debates over reopening were captured in the following omnibus term: “Öffnungsdiskussionsorgien”, which literally means orgies of discussion. (It reminded me of a blog I wrote in 2014 on Mark Twain’s essay ‘The Awful German Language’. Twain was very rude about German’s propensity to long words. He said that ‘Freundschaftsbezeigungen’ or ‘Stadtverordnetenversammlungen’ “are not words, they are alphabetical processions”. Click here to read the blog. It has a link to Twain’s essay as well.)

Anyway, English too has been adept in coining corona-specific words. Think of all the words that have been added to our vocabulary: “Covidiot”; “virtual happy hour”; “coronababies”; “WFH”; “WFA”.

There’s nothing particularly unusual about linguistic change. Languages routinely coin – or borrow – words, especially when they need to express something regarded as key to a society.

This is part of the evolutionary process that The Economist’s ‘Johnson’ column on language has described as akin to that of a biological species. ‘Johnson’ noted that Charles Darwin “made the parallel between language divergence and (man’s) evolution” in 1871, writing in ‘The Descent of Man’ that “the formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously the same”.