Clip and save! Your COVID-19 crisis glossary

With every crisis, a new set of expressions develops. Here’s a refresher course in the words of the pandemic.

SHARE Clip and save! Your COVID-19 crisis glossary
Some of the new terms, or at least their new definitions, may end up in the dictionary.

About 170,000 of the million or so words in English are in current use; the COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt add a few dozen more before the crisis is over. If it’s ever over.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Every prolonged crisis creates its own vocabulary. A special set of new words that linger. World War II (which lasted five years longer than the current crisis, so quit yer griping) is 75 years in the past. But many can reel off the terms it gave us: atom bomb, bazooka, commando, D-Day. And that’s just A-B-C-D.

So what are the words our grandchildren will use regarding the current calamity? No doubt it will be covered in their “C29: Early 21st Century America, Decline and Disaster” class. A primer:

Opinion bug


Coronavirus(kə-ˈrō-nə-ˌvī-rəs) n. Single-strand RNA virus studded with knobby projections (corona is Latin for crown). There are many coronaviruses — MERS, SARS, etc. — so the one causing trouble now was at first called the “new” or “novel” coronavirus, prefixes now typically dropped as superfluous. Usage: “More than a month since he declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency, President Donald Trump has repeatedly lied about this once-in-a-generation crisis.” — The Atlantic

COVID-19 (koh-vid naine-TEEN) n. Abbr. of “Coronavirus disease 2019,” the illness caused by a strain of coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Some news outlets, such as the New York Times, use lowercase (“Covid-19”), but that looks like the name of a South Korean boy band. Usage: “Rupert Murdoch, Fox News’ Covid-19 misinformation is a danger to public health.” — The Guardian

Covidiot(koh-vid-ee-et) n. The Urban Dictionary defines this as “someone who ignores the warnings regarding public health or safety.” Also used to describe someone hoarding goods, selfishly denying them to others. Usage: “Q: What do you call an armed member of a radical group of lockdown protestors? A: A Branch Covidiot.” — George Takei

Flatten the curve(FLA-tn tha kerv) verbal phrase. Reduce the speed at which a virus spreads, so fewer cases must be coped with. Usage: “One of the byproducts of being able to flatten the curve is that you will delay the peak.” — Illinois Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike

Fomite(fō-ˌmīt) n. A inanimate object, such as an iPhone or doorknob, holding infectious material that spreads disease. (As opposed to “vector,” which is living, like a mosquito or that lady next to you in line to buy Doritos you don’t need.) A back formation of “fomites,” from the Latin fomes meaning “tinder” — the little stuff that gets the big conflagration started. Usage: “Hence, the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 in our study could have resulted from spread via fomites (e.g., elevator buttons or restroom taps) or virus aerosolization in a confined public space (e.g., restrooms or elevators).” — CDC research letter

Force majeure(fors ma-ZHOOR) n. From Latin for “superior force.” An extreme circumstance beyond the control of parties to a contract that frees them from legal obligation. These can be man-made, such as wars and riots, or natural, like earthquakes and floods, or a little of both, like viral pandemics worsened by bumbling leadership. Does not apply to marriage contracts, so wipe that smirk off your face. Usage: “The company exercised its force majeure clause to terminate its supply contracts with Ontario pig producers.” — The Ontario Farmer

Hunker(huhng·kr) v. 1. To wait in a well-defended position, usually paired, superfluously, with “down.” Its literal Oxford English Dictionary definition (“to squat, with the haunches, knees, and ankles acutely bent”) is seldom the intended meaning. Instead, since March, it refers to passing time at home in anxious comfort while waiting for this crisis to play out. Usage: “Every now and then you run up on one of those days when everything’s in vain … a stone bummer from start to finish; and if you know what’s good for you, on days like these you sort of hunker down in a safe corner and watch.” — Hunter S. Thompson

N95(en-NEIN-tee-feiv) adj. or, increasingly, n. A type of coveted medical mask. The N stands for “Not resistant to oil” (the other mask categories are R for “somewhat resistant” and P for “oil proof”). The 95 refers to percentage of airborne particles filtered out. Usage: “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from respiratory diseases.” — FDA

PPE(pee-pee-EEE) n. Abbr. for “personal protective equipment.” Refers to the hairnet, shoe covers, gown, goggles and, especially, the protective mask needed to guard against COVID-19. Usage: “At his daily briefing Sunday, Pritzker announced the second airlift of PPE.” — Chicago Sun-Times

Social distancing(sowshl DI stuhn sing) phrase. Originally akin to “shunning” in sociological texts; now describes the ancient practice of avoiding close proximity to slow the spread of infectious disease. Usage: “School closures are the most justifiable method of social distancing in preventing disease spread.” — ”The Patient as Victim and Vector” (P. Battin et al, 2009)

Underbanked(UHN-dr bangkt) adj. The financial equivalent of a food desert in low-income communities; the state of having too few legitimate financial institutions, forcing reliance on usurious payday loans, etc. Usage: “Small businesses in underbanked communities and local lenders trying to compete with big banks are already facing significant barriers to participation in the PPP loan program.” — Statement by Chicago lawmakers

Wuhan virus(ooo-HA in Chinese; woo-hahn in English, vai-ruhs) n. COVID-19 to a bigot; also, “Chinese virus.” Increasingly rarely used, since even those trying to justify the term’s obvious racism by pointing to “Spanish flu” can’t explain how the values of 1918 — which included denying women the vote, and lynching — are 2020’s ethical polestar. Usage: “Trump Stops Saying ‘Wuhan Virus’ After Xi Strokes His Ego.” — Daily Beast

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