Language Shifts in a Global Pandemic

I’ve been thinking about how our language has suddenly changed in the last few months. Not so much individual words, but how we put them together. As a writer, language always interests me, and sometimes the way we change things annoys me.

As an Australian who is now in her fifties, I much prefer the term ‘biscuits’ for example, instead of the recent shift to ‘cookies.’ (It sounds weird to me.) I grew up eating biscuits, which are round, generally crunchy, and sometimes (like Tim Tams) are covered in chocolate. I’d never heard of ‘cookies’ until the advent of Sesame Street, and then it was mostly in combination with the Cookie Monster, and tossed off as a US oddity.

Biscuits, like many other words in Australia, is often shortened to ‘bickies.’ Which of course, is then used in other contexts, such as ‘Save your bickies,’ which means saving money.

A more recent shift is the language of global pandemic. ‘Social, or physical distancing,’ is now a thing. It’s a term used every day, by nearly everyone, whether in jest or seriously. At work, we now maintain social distancing in the waiting room. ie. We’ve taken half the chairs out. To keep our receptionists safe, or ‘distanced,’ we have a line taped on the floor, over which people will (mostly) not step.

We now talk about ‘flattening the curve,’ ‘self isolation,’ ‘lockdown,’ ‘essential services,’ ‘stopping/slowing the spread,’ and today, I wrote ‘due to the global pandemic’ in several letters to doctors and specialists.

I mean, who writes ‘due to the global pandemic?’ Well, apparently I do now. It felt really weird. I also talk about ‘transitioning to telehealth’ to my ‘at risk’ patients with significant co-morbidities. And everyone’s completely au fait with the concepts of hand washing to Happy Birthday *2, and not meeting in groups of more than two, unless you all reside at the same residence. When I say that I’m not using pillows or towels in the course of my job, people just nod, and murmur: “Much easier to wipe down a hard surface.”

I’m quite astounded at how fast this language shift has occurred, and how quickly the concepts have become part of me. Quite bizarrely, I was watching a fictional program on TV last week, and realised I was feeling uncomfortable about how close everyone was standing to each other. I’m now wondering how long it will take to lose the habits developed under the threat of global pandemic, ‘once this is over.’

But now, even as I’ve just written the words, I’ve realised I have no idea when ‘once this is over’ might even be. I wonder how long it will take for social distancing to become completely hardwired in my psyche, and how difficult it might be to feel comfortable with normal personal space again?

Things to ponder.

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