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New words for a new world: the language of a crisis.

by Craig Martin on 2020-05-12T00:00:00+01:00 in English | 0 Comments
In a matter of weeks, our language has seen the use of certain words and terms become common everyday terminology. Terms such as ‘social distancing’, ‘quarantine’, ‘self-isolation’ and ‘pandemic’ have quickly entered our everyday lexicon. Although these words may not be a source of happiness or comfort at the moment, I wanted to create an opportunity for linguistic learning in these strange and unsettling times. This blog post will delve into the etymologies and origins of some of these ‘new’ terms, and explain how really, they aren’t very ‘new’ at all….
Quarantine /ˈkwɒrəntiːn/
The word ‘quarantine’ dates back to fourteenth/fifteenth century. It derives from the Venetian word ‘quarantena’ which meant ‘forty days’. This is because forty days was the length of time that all ships had to be placed in isolation before crew/passengers could go ashore during the Black Death plague epidemic. But who decided it had to be forty days? We can but only guess, although some scholars have a few ideas. Some believe it has strong links to stories in the Bible:
● Jesus was tempted by the Devil for forty days and forty nights, a hardship that is now replicated by many religious people during Lent.
● Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights in order to receive the Ten Commandments.
● The prophet Ezekiel laid on His right side for forty days to symbolize Judah's sins
● The Bible contains 146 mentions of the number forty.
Others simply believe that this was an arbitrary length of time thought long enough to rid themselves of possible infection.
Social Distancing
This is something we should all be practicing, and hopefully the definition of what this means is clear to us all. However, where did these two separate words come from?
Social /ˈsəʊʃ(ə)l/
Can be traced back to the Latin for friend, socius, and also the Latin for allied, socialis. In Late Middle-England, we get the use of ‘social’ from Old French, influenced by the aforementioned Latin.
Distance /ˈdɪst(ə)ns/
(of which the gerund or perfect participle is distancing)
In Middle English ‘distance’ was used in the sense of discord, when in debate with someone you were said to be ‘standing apart’ from them. It derives from the Old French/Latin distantia, from distant-. Distance can be used in three different word classes: as a noun (a long distance away), a verb (distance yourself from me), and an adjective (a distance learning degree). Nowadays, distance is used to refer to both emotional and physical space between two entities.
Isolation /ʌɪsəˈleɪʃ(ə)n/
Noun of action from verb ‘isolate’
Claimed to be a rendering from the French isolé, or perhaps Italian isolato, deriving from Latin insulatus which means ‘made into an island’. French Isolé soon became English isolate, and isolated became the past participle. One of the first known uses of this word is in 1740:
‘[F]or I think it very natural to suppose, that all the People of this isolated Country, (I ask Pardon for a foreign word) should have one Language…’
[An Irregular Dissertation Occasioned by the Reading of Father Du Halde’s Description of China, 1740]
Coronavirus /kəˈɹəʊnəˌvaɪɹəs/
Coronaviruses belong to the larger family Coronaviridae. Its first known usage is recorded as 1968, where a group of virologists published a short article in the journal Nature. These virologists suggested the term coronavirus to refer to this previously unrecognised group, and this is because of the characteristic appearance of these viruses under a microscope. The virus has a series of crown-like spikes on its surface, and corona is the Latin word for crown or garland. The English word crown is a result of Latin corona being passed through time and passed through French which has led to the elimination of sounds.
The 1880s saw the discovery of viruses, but the word itself is much older. Latin virus originally referred to a poisonous substance, a liquid in particular. Modern usage seems to reflect a linguistic gap from this poisonous substance to a more medical use to mean a substance/agent that causes infectious disease. Interestingly, virus, something that characteristically can adapt and change in its attempt to spread, has not changed its orthography in its journey from Latin to English, it’s still spelled virus.
Pandemic /panˈdɛmɪk/
Linked to the Greek pan for ‘all’ and dēmos for ‘people’, pandemic is an adjective and a noun. In adjectival form, it described a disease or affliction that can / may affect ‘all people’. Due to the common usage of referring to disease, it is also understood and used as a noun, e.g. a national pandemic.
Crisis /ˈkrʌɪsɪs/
Another one from Greece, the Greek krisis had the original meaning of ‘a decision’. However,it was introduced into Middle-English through medical Latin, at which point the meaning had deferred slightly to: ‘the decisive point in the progress of a disease’ (how we might these days say someone is at ‘crisis point’ during the progression of mental health difficulties).
Vaccine /ˈvaksiːn/
You may well remember sitting in Science class at school learning about Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccine. Jenner observed that those who had contracted the milder cowpox (e.g. milkmaids) never contracted the more serious smallpox. 8-year-old James Phipps was used to convince non-believers that his vaccination had worked when Jenner injected the child with pus from a cowpox lesion, and then starting from 2 months later was injected no less than 20 times with the deadly smallpox.
However did you know that the term vaccine that was chosen by Jenner also relates to cows? The English word vaccine derives from the Latin vacca, which means cow.
Just for Fun… Here are some neologisms that are definitely more modern…
Quarantini (noun) Definition: Any martini that is imbibed when in isolation (cheers!)
Covidiot (noun)
Definition: Someone who ignores public health advice.
Apocaloptimist (noun) Definition: someone who feels hopeful about a post-lockdown version of the world.
Covember (or Covembering) (noun/verb) Definition: the process of not shaving during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Zoom-bombing (verb) Definition: Crashing someone else’s Zoom party/conference. P.s.: Don’t do this!! Can you think of any else? Try collecting all the neologisms you have heard during the lockdown!
The history of our language is evidence to show how meanings have changed and adapted over time, through foreign influence and social change. Words that we associate with modern ideas and issues, usually stretch far back in time and can sometimes surprise us with their original meanings. Just like the words we use, we too are capable of change and adaptation, under immense pressure and necessity. We are, as humans, constantly thinking, learning and sharing ideas. The spirit of community and our ability to support one another through this has been a true beacon of positivity for many.
It’s vital, I think, at a time like this is to be mindful of your own needs and limits. You may not feel like studying as much as you should or reading as much as you need. You may not feel like now is the time for creativity, for innovation, for productivity – and that’s okay. We are all dealing with this differently, and there is no “correct” way to cope. However, if the mood strikes to study, to learn, to be curious, to explore, to research, to discover – the University of Suffolk is here to help you make that happen.
University of Suffolk Library & Learning Services continues to support our students and library users through access to eResources, online real-time chat with staff members, and through the provision and maintenance of online teaching functions.
Stay home.
Stay safe.
Stay kind.
Allanah Peck
Library Assistant

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