This week the United States passed two grim milestones: 400,000 COVID-19 deaths, and one year since the first announced U.S. case of the disease. Generations from now, lexicographers may look at the last year as one in which language changed more rapidly than in almost any preceding era.
That means we’re overdue for an update to our pandemic dictionary.
covidiot, n: someone who refuses to wear a mask or practice safe social distancing, especially now that we’re a year into this mess. As the year progressed and we learned more about the disease, the bar for being a covidiot got continually lower, but their numbers seemed to multiply anyway.
anthropause, n: a dramatic global slowdown in human activity, with observable effects on everything from carbon emissions to wildlife habitats to energy usage. Turns out that when humans change their activity, the human impacts on our environment are mitigated. Note: If you’re someone who has gone on record as questioning the human causes of climate change — like, for example, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, Rep. Scott Perry, Rep. Glenn Thompson, Rep. Lloyd Smucker, or, like, half of the Pennsylvania legislature — you should probably avoid using this word. Really, you should avoid using any words, but, you know, baby steps.
coronasplaining, n: asserting that you know more about infectious diseases than someone with a decade of medical training because you spent 12 minutes “researching” on the internet. See also: covidiot.
Old words, new meanings
Blursday, n: basically every day. But despite the fact that this word feels very 2020, the Oxford English Dictionary says this portmanteau dates back to at least 1988. Sorry to inform you that even your ennui is unoriginal.
Slack, v: Working from home since March has accelerated the adoption of Slack, the workspace platform, to give Slacking, which refers to using the tool to collaborate with colleagues, a whole new meaning. As in: “Whatcha doing, Johnson?” “Just Slacking, boss.” “Keep up the good work!”
pod, n: a (hopefully) small group of people whom you trust to be responsible enough to share breathing space with. Violate the sanctity of the pod and prepare for social exile.
schadenfreude, n: Leave it to the Germans to perfect a word describing the pleasure one feels from observing another’s misfortune. This word didn’t have anything to do with the pandemic until Oct. 2 of last year, when lookups of schadenfreude spiked 24,800% on Merriam-Webster’s site. Can’t imagine why. Let’s look back at the headlines from that day: Hmm, grand jury recordings from the Breonna Taylor case were released. A federal judge ruled that the U.S. Census couldn’t end its work early. Oh, and Donald Trump announced he’d tested positive for coronavirus.
unprecedented, adj: This word started working overtime as soon as a certain 2016 presidential campaign began, but the pandemic turbocharged its usage, with unprecedented almost quadrupling its prevalence in news articles between February and March of last year. Usage remained so high throughout 2020 that as we turn the page on a new presidency, the word has more or less lost all meaning. With any luck, 2021 will give it a chance to rest and recharge, and come back ready to be a force for good.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and bicapitalization to email@example.com.