If you can remember a time when wearing a mask to the library was odd and shaking someone’s hand was normal, you’re old enough to remember the Before Times — the period of human existence that occurred before 2020. A lot has changed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — and luckily, the English language has kept up with Corona-specific words (also known as Coronacoinages) to meet our vocabulary needs.
One thing we lost during the 2020 lockdown (besides a basic semblance of hygiene and social awareness) was our sense of time. Friday was no different from Wednesday, and who cared about the weekend if bars and restaurants were closed? Those who were furloughed or laid off in the early days of the pandemic couldn’t track their days by a typical work schedule, making days just blur together. So what day is it? It’s Blursday.
Before 2020, we may have thought “brain tickler” meant some kind of word search or logic puzzle, like a brain teaser. But if you experienced the joy of a COVID-19 test in 2020, you know exactly what a brain tickler is. Officially known as a nasopharyngeal swab, the test included a 6-inch swab that was inserted into your nasal cavity until it met resistance (shudder) at your nasopharynx. The swab didn’t actually touch your brain, but you could have fooled us.
If you left your mail outside for several days or washed your groceries by hand in 2020, you probably know all about scaremongering. It occurs when one person’s panic becomes another person’s reality, and it’s really easy to be both a victim and a perpetrator of scaremongering without knowing it. A more mindful 2020 approach is caremongering — using that same health-focused energy to help those in your community. Not only can you do some good, but you can also stop washing that box of cereal now (and stop doomscrolling).
Office-based companies found themselves in something of a pickle during the 2020 lockdown. They couldn’t have their employees break Stay-at-Home orders and come in to work, but they weren’t equipped to have them work from home (yet). Those who didn’t furlough their employees paid their employees to stay home, which became known as a Coronacation. The term also applied to employees who had to stay home due to quarantine after exposure to the virus, but not those who were home with an infection, because that’s no vacation at all.
Do your pants feel a little tighter than they did before the pandemic? You may be experiencing coronaspeck. This very accurate German word combines Coronavirus and Kummerspeck, which means “worry bacon,” and refers to the extra weight you gain after emotional eating. It’s the same idea as COVID 15 (named after Freshman 15 to indicate the 15 pounds you gain during your freshman year in college) but so much better.
Once Stay-at-Home orders had people hunkering down in their homes, it wasn’t long before the jokes about a quarantine-inspired baby boom started. These babies would be called Coronials, the internet declared, and there would be many of them. While the baby boom turned out to be more of a baby bust, the name stuck around for those little ones who did show up in 2021.
Like so many concepts in the pandemic, this one really depends on your perspective. To the vaxxed and masked in society, a covidiot is someone who calls the pandemic a hoax or engages in risky, virus-spreading behavior. To those who are dubious about the severity of COVID-19, a covidiot describes a person who advocates for school closures or economically damaging lockdowns. No matter how you use it, you’ll offend someone. (Also, consider using the Spanish covidiota for a more eloquent way to hurt feelings.)
Admit it — you bought more than your share of toilet paper and cleaning supplies in March 2020. You’re not alone. Yet another German word sums up panic-buying in a satisfyingly adorable way: Hamsterkauf combines hamster and kauf (“buying”) describes the act of hoarding supplies just like a compulsive little hamster. You know you have hamsterkauf if you still get a little twinge in the toilet paper aisle, and wonder if you should grab an extra large package, just in case …
In a 21st-century infodemic, bad information can spread faster than a virus. The word infodemic is a portmanteau of information and pandemic, and it refers to an outbreak of false and potentially harmful information. An infodemic can include both misinformation and disinformation, and in the case of COVID-19, there was bad information all around. While an infodemic can be just as difficult to slow as a pandemic, it’s easy to do your part: Ask questions, check your sources and be prepared to change your mind when faced with new evidence.
The good news about wearing a mask is that you’re protecting yourself and others from COVID-19 and other viruses. The bad news comes in the form of maskne, which is acne caused by wearing masks. Those bumpy breakouts seemed like they were a thing of your teenage past, but like acid-washed jeans and the Backstreet Boys, it’s back (all right) thanks to the humid conditions trapped by your KN95. Washing your face with a gentle cleanser can help, and luckily, the mask itself can cover up any embarrassing blemishes as well.
From attending virtual classes to missing prom, graduation and other in-person milestones, teenagers in the pandemic were affected differently than other demographics. These quaranteens found themselves lonely and isolated in what should have been some of the most social years of their lives. It’s a distinctive generational trait that may make those born after the turn of the 21st century even more grateful to attend class or hang out with their friends.
Faced with the prospect of closed bars, many found themselves staring at their somewhat-lacking liquor cabinets for inspiration. A quarantini is that drink you can make from the stuff you already have and doesn’t taste half bad. The word also describes a specific drink that includes vitamin C supplements, but combining vitamins with alcohol is a bad idea.
As far as unhealthy coping mechanisms go, retail therapy isn’t the worst you could do. Those who found themselves unable to eat or drink away their COVID misery turned to online shopping, making their pandemic a spendemic. After all, they were spending all their time in their homes — why not spend their money, too?
Nineties children probably still see “super soaker” when they read about a superspreader. But alas, a superspreader is way less fun. A person can be a superspreader when they unwittingly spread COVID-19 to others, particularly after not observing public safety advice. A superspreader can also be an event where people are gathered in large numbers, unmasked, possibly indoors, and sharing food. Either way, it’s best to stick to your water guns and avoid superspreaders.
Words and Phrases That Hit Different Now
Many expressions became commonplace during the pandemic but actually weren’t new. Some have always been in the epidemiological world and are just new to us, while others took on a whole different meaning.
boosted - having received the booster shot six months after receiving the two-dose COVID-19 vaccination; also known as being “triple vaccinated” (but not invincible, sadly)
bubble - the group of people you hang out with during a pandemic who share your level of safety precautions; also called a “pod” like a pod of whales, but don’t take that personally
false positive - an error on a COVID-19 test that indicates an infection for someone who is not infected; also known as that chill down your spine when you consider quarantining yet again
flatten the curve - the effort to slow the spread of a virus to prevent hospitals from becoming overloaded with cases all at once
no touch - a comforting way to assure customers that you can provide a service without risking spreading COVID-19 (and to keep them from spreading it to you, too)
positivity rate - the rate at which COVID-19 tests come back positive (which should be low), not the rate at which you can cheer someone up (which should be high)
self-isolation - keeping yourself away from others after you’ve been exposed to COVID-19, or a handy way to politely decline party invitations
spike - a rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in a population (also a very cute dog name)
variant - a genetic mutation of COVID-19, such as the Delta variant or the Omicron variant (also a less-cute but still cool dog name)
Zoom - a noun, verb and adjective to describe a virtual hangout, as in “Let’s Zoom over Zoom to plan our next Zoom meeting.”
It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Words of Times
No one will be sorry to see the last of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as in every crisis in human history, people match the challenges of their era with courageous actions and brand-new words. For more insight into life in the 21st century, check out: