At the height of lockdown in early 2020, businesses were closed, people were hunkered down and streets were emptied. There was fear all around and many people doubted that life would return to normal. Some surmised it as Orwellian post-pandemic world. Few seemed to believe that life would ever be the same. Since then, the world has surely entered a new phase. Things might go back to being the old normal, but nobody knows how much time it will take. Wearing masks in public, keeping distance from each other, limited get-togethers, elbow nudging for hello, these are some of the newly accepted norms. While our social demeanor has surely accepted this new culture infested by the coronavirus, this ‘new normal’ paved its way into our language and lifestyle too. Academic editors and social researchers continue to document the language and society as it grows, changes and evolves.
Our language started evolving when people were confused whether to call it ‘Corona’ or ‘Covid-19’. It drew a vague line between classes for many but at the end, the name didn't matter for the fears associated with this virus were of far greater concern. Covid-19 not only expanded scientific horizons, it has defiantly enhanced our vocabulary too. Societies where words are segregated in gender columns had to decide and document whether to put the virus in masculine category or feminine? The French and Spanish societies declared it as a feminine word, calling it, ‘La Covid’ instead of ‘Le Covid’. The English linguists had to include a number of new words in their dictionaries as well.
When people first heard of the outbreak, they weren't ready to accept that it could break barriers. Soon it spread out like wildfire and the first uncommon word we heard was ‘Pandemic’. Google reported that it was the most searched word in March 2020. The words we haven't even heard in years have become common and phrases like ‘social distancing’, ‘lockdown’, ‘soft lockdown’, ‘end of lockdown’, ‘smart lockdown’ are not just phrases anymore, they are actual regulations. Breaking them can have serious consequences. They sound mildly threatening but they are enforced for the safety of the people. In fact, the law requires authorities to implement these restrictions and if they find anyone not abiding to these rules and regulations, authorities are allowed to penalize them.
Another obscure word, ‘Quarantine’, has become a part of our daily routine. The practice of quarantine began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. The word quarantine was derived from the Italian words ‘quaranta giorni’, which translates to 40 days. These terms were little used until recently but now everyone is aware of them. Medical jargon like ‘asymptomatic’, ‘fatality rate’ and ‘contamination’, have found their way into our daily concerns. Words like ‘super spreader’, ‘herd immunity’, ‘flattening the curve’ and ‘self-isolation’ have been catapulted into common usage and sprawled as official words in the Oxford Dictionary. A drug, Hydroxychloroquine, after becoming widely famous, also made its way into the world’s dictionaries.
Chores like washing your hands, using sanitizers, sneezing in the elbow, avoiding physical contact, online meetings and online shopping are also included in the list of new normal. Amazon and Ali Express are the new shopping malls. Parties and get-togethers are being held online. Although people are found celebrating special events outdoors, many prefer to watch the ceremonies via Skype.
These times are particularly difficult for those growing into adulthood and finding their place in the world. The newborns are bound to have a difficulty mingling with people, if this pandemic stays on indefinitely. Schools have also gone online and online submission is the new normal for all students. The new hiring policy for teachers requires them to be tech-savvy.
There is also a rekindled interest in historic pandemics. Spanish Flu was the most talked about influenza and scientists derived many precautionary measures from it. Masks have become the new culture as in the past it was mandatory for everyone to wear one during plagues. At the time, the world wars also added to the list of miseries; the notorious Great Depression was a product of these two elements: war and plague. Economically, even today, a large number of people have lost their jobs and many businesses had no option but to shut down. The conditions are still not favorable for the business community but life goes on.
Outbreaks in the recent past like Ebola, MERS and SARS, did not change the world the way COVID-19 has. While it’s likely that the coming-of-age generation will bear long-term impacts, it is unclear what those might be. These updates give us a glimpse into how language and our daily lives can quickly change in the face of unprecedented social and economic disruption. For coming generations these terms won't be as new as they are for us. Today’s young adults may think of health as more of a common good than something intrinsically personal. If wearing a mask remains mandatory, they may not remember a time when not wearing one was acceptable. Today, congratulations and condolences have become emoticons, not the warm embrace and hugs from your loved ones. The traumas caused by the pandemic could lead to a rise in hopelessness. Physical distancing may contribute to mental stress, which could lead to depression, as man is after all a social animal.
Some people say that COVID-19 is caused by a bad astrological conjecture, others say that it is a divine punishment while some conspiracy theorists believe that it is man-made. Regardless, COVID-19 has certainly changed every aspect of our lives. It is evident that this virus has changed our world palpably, not only stirred our health; our social, pecuniary and linguistic skills have also been affected. So, what does it mean for us in the aftermath of COVID-19? The more things change, the more they stay the same. It means that we need to take a long hard look at the social and economic systems that underlie how we live, work and play. Change is the next thing that could hit us, for change is the only constant in this universe and it happens from time to time. We should be prepared for more changes to come in the future because more than a century ago, a great scientist who is renowned for his discoveries of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurization, Louis Pasteur, said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” It’s time we should heed this. HH
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