COVID-19 Lingo

To start, I am no expert on the COVID-19 pandemic and can’t offer recommended behavior or predictions on any aspect of it. I know roughly as much as anyone else reading on the internet and talking to friends about it.

And that’s all the time because this pandemic is a big, global deal that has affected everyone. Even if pandemics aren’t new, this one seems unique because the internet has made it everyone’s deal very quickly.

And new, big things bring new jargon into the world. I thought I would highlight several of these linguistic phenomenon that should come as no surprise but are still fascinating to me.

Coronavirus vs. COVID-19

Initially, the reporting referred to this as the “coronavirus.” However, journalists and social media have quickly adopt “COVID-19” as the default name for it.

In conversation, it doesn’t make a difference, but technically, these are two different things. Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses, whereas COVID-19 refers specifically to this illness as Coronavirus disease 2019.

On the other hand, most people tend to prefer “coronavirus” to “COVID-19” in spoken conversation. I’m not certain whether this is actually true or, if it is, what the cause of it might be. Is this just a typical lag that happens between written and spoken language? Is it a difference between more technical language typically used by journalists who mostly write and laypeople who mostly speak?


I had heard of “isolation” before, but we added “self” in front, and that’s new. Also, the wording is confusing. Isn’t the point of “isolation” that you’re supposed to be alone, or, in other words, by yourself?

I believe that “self” refers to the isolation being self-regulated rather than prescribed by, say, a medical professional. However, that distinct may not be clear since many people online are telling others to self-isolate. Like the coronavirus-COVID-19 point above, I suspect that in common use, people use “self-isolation” and “isolation” interchangeably. We lose some technical clarity, but we mostly get each other.

I do appreciate self-deprecating humor around this. When governments and officials began advising self-isolation, many people mused about having already spent their entire lives practicing self-isolation. I don’t want to diminish social anxiety, but certainly our virtual world today better supports isolation than ever before.

Social Distancing

“Social distancing” is another new phrase to me. Without context, I would have guessed that it meant something like ostracizing someone. In context, however, it obviously means physical distancing.

I have since heard “6 feet apart” enough times that the connotation of that size is now “don’t cough on me” instead of “wow that guy is tall.”


Gathering isn’t a new word, but it’s being used in many more context than before. Previously, I knew this word in two contexts.

First, it’s part of “family gatherings.” That’s a common set phrase, though now that I think about it, I’m not certain whether its meaning is closer to “family reunion” or “weekly family dinner.”

Second, I went through a long Magic: the Gathering phase. “Gatherings” in that case referred to getting together to play Magic.

Now, gatherings apparently refer to groups of all sizes from 1000 down to 4 as we have received continuous updates on the allowable size of social or voluntary gatherings. Concerts are gatherings. Yoga classes are gatherings. Everything’s a gathering, and apparently, all of them are bad news now.

Don’t Touch Your Face

This is the first full sentence here. Like social distancing, it has been repeated often enough to have clear directions associated with it.

It actually probably follows “wash your hands” in popularity, but we should have been doing that all along. I wonder how long this focus on hygiene will continue. Is this the new norm, or will we gradually become more relaxed again?

On a similar note, several people have made websites using your webcam and computer vision to detect when you are touching your face. My favorite is Don’t Touch Ya Face. In truth, I haven’t tried using this site or any other, but the FAQ is excellent.

Shelter In Place

I’m not sure if this phrase is global or specific to the Bay Area, but I first heard it in an order earlier this week. News of it spread quickly within an hour, and everyone spoke of it like they knew what it meant, so maybe I’m the odd one out.

When I heard “shelter”, my mind jumped to “tornado shelter” or “homeless shelter”, so I thought that Santa Clara County setting up a shelter was like putting up tents. It turns out that it just means stay at home.

I’m not sure why they didn’t go with “stay at home.” Perhaps it sounds too informal for an official order. Maybe there’s a problematic implication of assuming that everyone has a home. Or maybe this is totally normal language and I’m just not familiar with it.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this entire situation has the feeling of a crisis. It wasn’t a surprise, but over the course of days, the information and advice changed rapidly. Everyone was responding and figuring things out together, and that high level of communication meant that we clustered around specific language for it.

For me, I now that all of the phrases above will evoke memories of this particular experience. I’ll keep my ears and eyes open for new language around it to see how that continues to evolve with the situation.

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