New normal, flatten the curve, quarantine: How our daily language has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic

Major events often add to our collective vocabulary, but most of those events are short lived.

That has not been the case with the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, this is the longest major event in the lifetime of everyone in the world--unless that person is well over 100 years old and can remember the 1918 flu pandemic.

Since that is only an infinitesimal number of people worldwide, that means that the pandemic experience is unprecedented for almost every human.

Right there is one of those words that has become part of our everyday pandemic conversations: unprecedented.

It's an example of an old word that has become much more common during the pandemic.

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"For almost everybody, getting the vaccine that's available to you is the right vaccine," said Dr. Thomas Holland, Assoc. Prof. of Infectious Diseases at Duke University.



ABC11 has compiled a list of words, like unprecedented, that have seen an upsurge in usage over the last year. Some of them are old words that have new meanings (i.e., cluster), others are old words combined to mean something we never thought they would mean (i.e., social distancing), and yes some are even completely new words (i.e., COVID).

Linguistic experts have been busy compiling their own lists for new dictionary entries and several dictionaries have named "words of the year" for 2020.

The two most popular are, no surprise here, pandemic and COVID-19.

Those two words changed our lives and our conversations.



"It's pretty apparent to anyone paying attention that it has been a year of...a lot of lexicon being added that focuses in particular on one specific aspect of our lives, which is the pandemic," Dominika Baran said.

Baran is a Duke professor and a sociolinguist--someone who studies language, its changes, and its role in society.

In our high-tech society word evolution is rapid according to Baran who said, "With the presence of the internet. These words have been able to spread really fast."

A year ago the term "social distancing" was virtually unheard of. Now it's a term used often in daily conversations worldwide.

The funny thing about that term, according to Baran, is that it's not really even accurate.

"What we're doing is not so much social distancing as physically distancing, right?" she said. "The whole point of social distancing is that we can continue to be social, continue to interact with people but safely."

Then there are new words derived from scientific terms. The virus itself is an example.

COVID-19 was made up from a combination words familiar to scientists to represent a virus never before seen by them prior to 2019.

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Then there are old words with the same old meaning that will forever remind us of this time.

Quarantine is one of them.

Interestingly, this word was born out of another pandemic, the bubonic plague in the 14th century.

During that event nearly 700 years ago, Italy required ships to isolate offshore for 40 days after trips to infected countries.

In Italian 40 is "quaranta." So you can see how that morphed into a word that today represents medical isolation.

Of course we all knew that word prior to the pandemic, but we will never see it the same way again post-pandemic.

Baran points out that many people have latched onto these words and created derivatives that other people can instantly understand.

"Quarantini, for instance," she said smiling, "A quarantine martini. And I am pretty sure I saw some recipes for those online."

Then there are some pandemic words that mean more to some than others.

The word "asynchronous" may not be familiar to everybody.

But if you have children who spent much of 2020 taking classes online you know it means unscheduled classes and lessons available anytime on the internet.
Many of those students learned remotely in "pods" just as some of us continued to visit with a few people outside our homes but in our "bubble" -- another kind of group that limits exposure and outside contact.

Then there's "Zoom," a brand name that's come to symbolize all video conferencing--much like Kleenex often represents all facial tissues.

It's also a word that we may pin on one of our youngest groups in our society, Generation Z.

Much like the baby boom generation are called "boomers," Baran said Gen Z may come away from the pandemic with a new nickname.

"They are doing their schooling and everything on Zoom. So they are Zoomers."

We can only hope there will soon be one more Zoom in our lives: the pandemic zooming toward oblivion, so we no longer have to "pivot," by relying on "PPE" and going "contactless" to "flatten the curve."

Here's our list of pandemic words. If we've left any out you may want to find this story on our Facebook page and add more in the comments section.

  • Aerosol
  • Airborne
  • Antigen test
  • Asymptomatic
  • Asynchronous
  • Bubble
  • CARES act
  • Clinical trials
  • Cluster
  • Cohort
  • Community spread
  • Comorbidity
  • Congregate settings
  • Contact tracing
  • Contactless
  • Convalescent plasma
  • COVID-19
  • Droplets
  • Efficacy
  • Emergency Use Authorization
  • Essential
  • Face mask
  • Flatten the curve
  • Furlough
  • Herd immunity
  • Isolation
  • Lockdown
  • Long hauler
  • Mask
  • MIS-C
  • Monoclonal
  • N95 respirator (graded/tested mask)
  • New normal
  • Novel coronavirus
  • Outbreak
  • Pandemic (named 2020 "Word of the Year" by multiple dictionaries)
  • PCR Test
  • Pivot
  • Pod
  • PPE (personal protective equipment)
  • Quarantine
  • Remote learning
  • Self-isolate
  • Shelter-in-place
  • Shutdown
  • Social distancing
  • Stay-at-home
  • Stimulus check
  • Super-spreader
  • Transmission (prior to the pandemic we all thought this was a car part)
  • Ventilator
  • Viral shedding
  • WFH (Work from home)
  • Zoom
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