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  • Reverend James Squire

Words Matter: How We Talk About the Pandemic

Updated: Feb 11, 2021



I listened recently to a conversation that Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University had with an interviewer. She is my go to person regarding the importance of words and conversations and culture. Her observations about words and the Pandemic are useful. I will share some of her observations with you.

We describe the Pandemic in interesting and negative ways. We must “quarantine” which is a word that grew out of the Spanish Flu Plague in 1918. We use “lockdown” to describe our need to stay inside which implies that we are prisoners and someone has the key to our release. We also say that we must “shelter in place” which is a phrase that is used when an active shooter is threatening us.

She indicates that there isn’t one word to describe what we are going through, but we should pay attention to the words that we are using. We referred to 9/11 first as a bombing attack which was inaccurate. Later it was called a terrorist attack which was more accurate.

We refer to recommended standing apart as social distancing. It would be more accurate to say physical distancing to get the point across better.

One of the things that struck me in her observations is that we and our children tend to get tired when looking at a computer screen for an extended period of time. It is because the eye is a muscle. The ear is not!

When you add an exclamation point after a text, it communicates that you really mean what you say.

“Stay home. Save lives.” This phrase was first used by the Prime Minister of Australia. It communicates a clear concern for others. When we use the greeting “How are you?”, we need to follow that up since we are in a serious time of illness. It can no longer be a casual greeting. “I hope this email finds you well!” is similar as we are sharing a concern about a person’s health.

We talk about the economy “roaring back” which was first used during the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic which references another bleak time in our history. However, the term surfaced again in the 1980(s) in a positive way mostly as a description for sports teams that were making a comeback.

It is interesting to see how frequently military terms have entered our conversations particularly during the Pandemic. We are “fighting a war” against the Covid 19 virus. The search for the vaccine is referred to as being done as quickly as possible. The operation is called “Warp Speed”.

The use of the word, masks, was unfortunate for it communicates that something illicit is being done or an imposition on our freedom.

The question that is also on people’s minds is how do we build trust by communicating with others online. That can work for us as to speak with someone in their home communicates a certain level of intimacy. We also see people face to face which is a plus even though it is impossible to see body language.

Language matters during this Pandemic where how we communicate with one another has an even more seriousness of purpose.

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