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Pondering the parlance of the pandemic

Writers are word watchers.

They’re the basic tools of our trade. We track their development like carpenters and plumbers monitor improvements in hammers and pipe wrenches.

They don’t call us wordsmiths for nothing.

New words and phrases are coined constantly. Some have incredibly long shelf lives, others the life expectancy of a spring flower.

I mean, why is cool still, well, cool, and groovy not so much?

Not long ago, I was on a rural drive with my Chinese-born wife. We spotted two yokels perched on a sagging porch.

My wife turned to me. She wanted to use a phrase she’d heard somewhere: country bumpkin.

Merriam-Webster defines bumpkin as an “awkward and unsophisticated rustic.” Its first usage was in 1570, from the Dutch boomken, a diminutive of boom tree. The word assumed its present meaning in 1613.

To my mind, it needed to be retired, or updated.

And my wife did just that as she pointed out the window: “Look at those two country pumpkins.”

That day, in my personal vocabulary, one phrase died and another was born.

It was a thing of beauty.

Social media jokes were immediate

These days, COVID-19 is changing the language of social health.

New words and phrases come at us every day. Sometimes old ones assume a stark new urgency. How innocent we were when we first heard that word: coronavirus.

Most of us knew what a virus was, but this was a new spin on an old microscopic nightmare. The social media jokes were immediate. There were ad nauseam jokes about a favorite Mexican beer. But this new threat was nothing you drank with a lime. It was a virus that had jumped from animals to humans, named for its menacing sunlike halo.

Many of us already knew the acronyms SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). We knew about disease clusters and outbreaks, incubation and person-to-person disease spread. But this thing was crazier and more lethal.

We whispered the word coronavirus for a few days. Then it became the novel coronavirus because it had never been detected in humans before

Then we really got schooled.

Scientists gave it another name, SARS-CoV2, which in public usage quickly morphed into COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by SARS-CoV2.

Confused yet?

No more hugs and kisses

So we adjusted — and quickly. Nobody wanted to be considered any kind of corona pumpkin.

Soon, there were more technical words and phrases — the kind that might be used at the latest World Health Organization conference.

As we watched the virus spread from China to Europe, we learned the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic. We learned about self-isolation. About using separate towels, sleeping alone and forgoing hugs and kisses.

We learned that close contact is being within 6 feet of a COVID-19 patient for a prolonged period.

Then came social distancing, avoiding face-to-face contact at the park and grocery store.

That concept quickly was tweaked to physical distancing because, while we minded the physical distances between us, we had to remain social.

Newspaper readers quickly were able to distinguish between a quarantine and a lockdown.

Cruise ships became associated with isolation and death.

We began bandying about phrases such as asymptomatic and public health crisis, as we would last night’s baseball scores.

We were reminded all too quickly how a vaccine — given to a healthy person to keep him or her from getting infected — differed from an anti-viral, a medicine given to a person already infected.

We learned that remdesivir is an investigational anti-viral drug given to people in clinical trials and hoped it could put an end to this madness.

Our newest weapon in viral WWIII

The initial drip of scary new words turned into a flood. There was the index case — the first documented case of an infectious disease. And there was patient zero, the moniker for the first person to become sick, and community spread, the passing of a contagious disease to individuals in a particular location who have no known contact with others infected.

And, by all means, beware of the super-spreader, who unknowingly transmits a communicable disease.

Along with the new words, old ones were given new context.

Words such as hoarding and selfish and panic-buying.

We now know that essential businesses are those that provide products to keep us fed and healthy. And people who never worked in construction or in a hospital now know the phrase N95 respirator.

New abbreviations have sprung up, such as PPE, which by now everyone in the U.S. knows is short for “personal protective equipment.”

We paid attention to fatality rates and the sinister-sounding R-naught, or R0, a virus’ reproductive number, a metric used to describe how contagious an infectious agent is.

We developed several new disease-fighting battle cries. We learned that a curve is the theoretical number researchers use to predict how many people will contract COVID-19 over a period of time. Then came flattening the curve, which means doing what we can to slow an outbreak’s spread and crush the rising line on a chart.

We’ve heard of contact tracing, our newest weapon in this viral World War III — a way of identifying and monitoring those who may have had contact with an infectious person to halt COVID-19’s spread.

And now we all talk about Zoom, a videoconferencing company, whose name has suddenly become a verb for real-time chats with friends and relatives, and which is on its way to reaching google status as a mainstream phrase.

A new definition for ‘bravery’

While these words were unknown to most of the world just a few months ago, we now use them daily.

We can survive this if we put into practice words we’ve known all our lives. Words such as compassion, caring and hope.

Whatever happens, there will be a new definition for the word “bravery,” and it will be applied in places that seemed unlikely not so long ago. Places such as hospital acute care centers, grocery stores and package delivery trucks.

It will be used to describe all who have helped maintain the comforting rhythms of everyday life, amid all the ugliness.

But may the rest of those phrases die quickly. Like groovy.

Now, that, my friends, is truly something beautiful.

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