War. It’s one of the many metaphors of our current COVID-19 language.

At a recent news conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told his audience, “Words matter!” as he strongly advised people to just stay home. “Shelter in place,” he admonished, should be used only during events such as an active shooter scenario, when people need to move to a safe place away from windows.
“Words matter,” agreed John Kelly, a senior research editor at dictionary.com. “They provide comfort and order amid chaos.”

Since there’s really no escaping them (no matter how hard we try), let’s take a closer look at some of the words and terms that have lately crept into our everyday lives, beginning with some metaphors that are real fighting words.

“We are at war,” declared French President Emmanuel Macron, in an effort to convey the gravity of the situation to his countrymen.

Similarly, as we were all being asked to make the greatest sacrifices in decades, President Trump started calling himself “a wartime president.”

The theme has been a common and apt one. The New York Times decried the lack of test kits and PPE in its headline “At War With No Ammo.” PPE? Personal protective equipment such as gowns, face shields and the N95 “health care particulate respirator and surgical mask.”

A few days earlier, Cuomo had stated, “Ventilators are to this war what missiles were to World War II.”


And what about some of the many words we’re now hearing so frequently?

Ventilators are machines that pump oxygen into the patient’s lungs and remove carbon dioxide. Respirators, on the other hand, are put over your mouth and nose to stop contact with airborne substances, like the aforementioned N95 masks.

Two ways of responding to possible cases of COVID-19 (COrona VIrus Disease-2019) at home include isolation (separating someone who’s already sick from those who are not sick) and quarantine (separating someone exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick). Either way, it means staying well away from others.

Of course the best way to deal with this pandemic (a disease that has spread over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population) is through preventive measures. Gov. Cuomo reminded his audience to PAUSE (Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone), and follow these now-familiar commonsense guidelines: practice 6-foot social distancing (the verb is “socially distance”), wash your hands (proven effective by Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis in 1847), and, if you’re not essential (of the highest importance for achieving something) to the workforce, just stay home.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”

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