The pandemic has transformed lives and livelihoods.

But it’s changed the little details, too — like the language we use — peppering our everyday speech with scientific terms like “social distancing,” “superspreader” and “asymptomatic.” 

“We’ve all had to become amateur epidemiologists and familiarize ourselves with these terms that normally we’d expect to be in some journal article somewhere.” 

Ben Zimmer is a linguist and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. 

He says a lot of the words that came up fresh to many people in 2020 had existed in scholarly literature for decades. 

“So for example “contact tracing” is attested from 1910. Been in use for well over a century. There’s an example from an Australian medical journal talking about school epidemics… back in 1910 and they’re talking about contact tracing as something a school nurse would need to do to figure out who was infected.”

And the term quarantine — which derives from a Renaissance-era Italian word, meaning a 40-day waiting period for ships arriving from plague-stricken ports — dates back centuries. But it took on new life during the pandemic. 

“Everyone’s talking about quarantining and it starts generating all these new forms as well… drink your quarantini… you can grow a quaranbeard…and on and on and on as people got creative by taking these words and forming new innovative expressions out of them.” 

Zimmer also chairs the New Words Committee, for the American Dialect Society. At a recent virtual meeting, they voted on the 2020 Word of the Year

Selecting from candidates like “doomscrolling” or “social distancing” and “unprecedented” — the group ultimately chose a different word, which, unlike the others, was newly coined in 2020, and truly defined what turned out to be a terrible year: 


— Christopher Intagliata 

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]