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From herd immunity to 'maskne': How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our English lexicon

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APRIL 14, 2022

How exactly did Zoom become a verb, why was Merriam-Webster’s 2020 word of the year “pandemic” and how did all of the words we commonly use now just appear? These are some of the mysteries of the COVID-19 pandemic, and since consulting with UC Berkeley professor of molecular and cell biology Robert Beatty and campus GSI Eduardo Lujan, I am going to look into and fully explain some common phrases and concepts we now use in everyday speech that were so infrequently used before 2020.

Vaccine efficacy and the use of boosters

Talk of vaccines and “getting boosted” seem to be present in every conversation we engage in nowadays, but before 2020, getting into the weeds of the efficacy and ethicality of vaccines with family members was truly rare. Vaccines, if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past two years, are that age-old scientific method used to stimulate the immune system and its memory to protect against future infections from a variety of different pathogens. 

As a result of our collective experiences with the coronavirus, many have come to realize that vaccines really prevent symptomatic disease, not infection, and it is completely possible to contract the virus when on spring break in Cabo and spread it when back in Berkeley, even though you are vaccinated and boosted (a “breakthrough infection”). So, the next time you talk about the potential of a fourth shot (immunization, that is) with your extended cousins, remember what the pandemic has taught you and that hardly anyone besides immunological experts would consider this to be table talk before 2020.

Herd immunity

Not only has the pandemic taught us a lot about vaccines, but it has also taught us about the effect of vaccines on the general public as a whole. Not once — outside of an immunology class, at least — have I heard someone mention the phrase “herd immunity” before 2020; but now, it’s such a common phrase, regardless of whether people know what it actually means and entails. We now often use the phrase to denote the idea that once a certain threshold of vaccination is reached in a population, we are in a sense “safe” from the virus. 

In immunological terms, according to the World Health Organization, herd immunity is the “indirect protection” from a pathogen by either vaccination or past infection on the general population as a way to make the virus harder to spread. Never before could immunologists grasp the idea that the general public would understand and use this phrase in everyday speech, but here we are (at last). 

Quarantine versus isolation 

If I asked each one of you reading this article the exact difference between quarantine and isolation before and after the pandemic, I am almost certain that you would have had to look up the definitions before (and hopefully not research as much now, whether or not you’ve had your own experiences in the La Loma dorms in Foothill). The CDC defines quarantine as “separating” and “restricting” people possibly exposed to an infection to see if they do become sick, whereas isolation is separating those who are confirmed to be sick from those who are not. 

This pandemic has certainly taught us the differences while making “quarantine” a word too often used now, especially when it comes to new and improved forms of contact tracing (identifying those potentially in contact with those infected). 

The “curve”

What actually is this mysterious curve that people insistently preach we need to flatten, whether or not they understand what exactly they’re saying? I will admit that while writing this, I did need to look up the exact definition because I’ve heard this phrase thrown around so much that the meaning is way too convoluted in my mind. The CDC defines this curve as “a visual display of the onset of illness among cases associated with an outbreak,” and in simpler terms, flattening the curve basically represents “spreading out” the number of infections so that it is not one steep point in order to relieve hospitals and emergency workers from way too many infected people needing their services at once. Oftentimes, this phrase is used to simply denote the need to socially distance — which would in turn slow down the spread of infections over time. 

Colloquialisms

On a lighter note, have you caught yourself recently using words that definitely were not words two years ago? Some common colloquialisms and expressions that have emerged as a result of this pandemic include ones such as “maskne” (something we all truly despise), “elbow bumping,” “Zoom-bombing,” “the rona” and making fun of the occasional “COVIDiot.” 

So, overall, there has clearly been a lot we learned from COVID-19; and just as we are adapting to this pandemic, our English lexicon and how we talk to each other is also adapting with us. 

Contact Alessi Ayvaz at [email protected]
LAST UPDATED

APRIL 14, 2022


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