With our “summer of freedom” from COVID-19 hopefully now upon us, this seems like a pretty good time to pause and take a look back at some of the new words that were coined during the pandemic, as well as some existing ones that suddenly took on new meanings.

Heck, so many “newly prominent” words qualified so quickly for entry into Merriam-Webster’s dictionary that the alert lexicographers there needed to issue an unscheduled update to the iconic tome. On March 18, 2020, “community spread” and “contact tracing” officially entered our language, as did “social distancing” and “super spreader.”

In January of this year, Webster’s added another gaggle of COVID-related words, including “long hauler,” “wet market” (a place where perishable items and live animals are sold and often slaughtered), and an added definition of “bubble” as being a social environment.

Anyone who’s cared to pay attention already knows that SARS-CoV2 viruses cause COVID-19, and that the virus can change over time. The World Health Organization currently lists four “variants of concern” (VOCs), including the “highly transmissible” delta variant, along with another seven “variants of interest” (VOIs).

A short time ago the WHO began naming these variants after letters of the Greek alphabet in the hope that countries will be less stigmatized and more likely to report new variants if the variants aren’t named after the reporting countries. This system appears to have met with limited success since newscasters never seem to miss a chance to remind us that the delta variant (which scientists call B.1.617.2) originated in India.

Speaking of letters of the alphabet, mRNA are four we’ve seen a lot of. The two leading vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, are the mRNA type, which stands for messenger ribonucleic acid. This type teaches our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response in our bodies to the virus.

Naturally, the simple act of getting (or not getting) a shot (also called a “jab” or a “Fauci ouchie”) has spawned its own additions to our vocabulary, words that run the gamut from a new wave of “anti-vaxxers” to “the moveable middle” (those who can still be convinced to get inoculated), and go all the way to “vacctivists” and “vaxholes” (those “fully vaccinated” people who wave their completed vaccination cards under everyone’s nose).

By the way, vaccines get their name from Dr. Edward Jenner, an English physician who in the late 1700s inoculated people against smallpox by treating them first with non-deadly cowpox (”vacca” is Latin for “cow”), which he discovered prompted the body to produce antibodies against both poxes.

As you stayed home to help “flatten the curve,” did you gain that “quarantine 15” pounds as you wondered if we’ll ever reach “herd immunity” (getting at least 70 percent of the population vaccinated), while you quickly developed “pandemic fatigue” from attending endless Zoom meetings.

Maybe you were a “craftivist” who sewed masks for those who needed them (while secretly “hoarding” toilet paper?) as you dreamt about dining out again, even if it meant eating at a “streetery” and sitting in a “parklet” that had recently been a parking space. (The motor oil and transmission fluid on the ground were ambiance.)

Unfortunately, all these COVID-induced words and phrases came at a great cost of lives and well-being. A line from an old Bob Seger song comes to mind: “Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

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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