Sticking Together – Communal Coping with COVID-19 Through Language
By Aline Schmidt
Language is sticky. It sticks labels to the objects in our world. It binds things, people and communities together. In that stickiness lingers the power of language, and the words we choose to stick to our experiences simultaneously create and make sense of them. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, the language used by officials to communicate the crisis has been under scrutiny. Angela Merkel’s appeal to the German public that “the only way to show we care is by keeping our distance” has been praised in international media as a reassuring and empathetic way of addressing German citizens. “We will prove, as a community, that we will not abandon one another,” she said. In the US, Donald Trump’s preferred way of talking about the pandemic and the government’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus has been through the lens of militaristic language: the virus is framed as “invisible enemy”, the country’s emergency health care strategy as an “aggressive effort”, a “fight”, a “war”. Adina Weis, a doctor currently treating COVID-19 patients, says that such battlefield rhetoric warps the idea of what medical work should and does look like: “A wartime mindset demands death, suffering and sacrifice in the service of one’s country. But a global pandemic should not demand the same of its medical workforce.” Every linguistic choice is an act of creating meaning. Because the implications of patterned linguistic choices are powerful as language takes effect on our minds through repetition, the words public representatives stick to any critical situation should be chosen with care and responsibility. But it’s not just through examining these metaphors and rhetoric and the discourses shaped by big social actors that we can learn about the way we handle the crisis linguistically. On the citizen level, in the language we use every day, people have found ways to cope with the pandemic communally through language and linguistic practice.
The rapid shifts in social life during the lockdown have taken form in language use, most visibly in the many words that have recently entered the vocabulary. Bernadette Paton, the Executive Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, stated: “It is a consistent theme of lexicography that great social change brings great linguistic change, and that has never been truer than in this current global crisis.” The creativity and pace at which the lexicon is changing are a rare sight for lexicographers, and linguists have been quick to document the evolution of coronaspeak. Meaning expands as words and acronyms spread from specialized domains into wider use (social distancing, WFH for working from home, PPE for personal protective equipment), words are arranged into new fixed phrases (flatten the curve). Other words are being used more frequently and receive new notions, like the elbow bump, or the infodemic that first appeared in 2003 during the SARS outbreak. We can also observe linguistic innovation like shortening corona to the rona, the creation of a new drink called a quarantini or the emergence of the zoom mullet – a hairstyle that looks presentable in the front but hides the scruffy hair in the back – which has become known as quarantine hair (among those voluntarily or involuntarily staying at home because of the contact restrictions). These (and many more) words are not merely descriptions of new practices and official regulations, they are expressions of a new reality that many people share, and they reflect current emotional grapplings. They help people come to terms with life in limbo between BC and AC – before corona and after corona.
One of the most prominent terms (and practices) in public discourse has been social distancing. Mark Davies has created the Coronavirus Corpus, a large collection of linguistic data with texts from “online newspapers and magazines in 20 different English-speaking countries” with the aim to record the “social, cultural, and economic impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in 2020 and beyond”. In this corpus, we can observe that social distancing has experienced a spike in the English language in the middle of March 2020 (peaking at 460 occurrences per million words (pmw)). For comparison – the comparable NOW corpus records a relative frequency of 13.88 pmw between 2010 and 2020. This tells us a few things: 1) The phrase has existed before – the first usage in American English is recorded in October 2010; 2) its semantic meaning has changed – in the first recorded usage, social distancing describes a symptom of anti-social behavior by pathological gamblers; and 3) the use of the term social distancing has become very widespread and has entered common vocabulary.
However, if we look at the immediate linguistic context (the co-text), we can observe a second phrase pop up, which, by now, is also well-known: physical distancing.
In fact, the term physical distancing entered the corpus only a little later than social distancing and peaked in mid-May 2020 at 71.51 pmw. Physical distancing, too, has been used before and in a different sense. Its first use in American English as recorded by the NOW corpus is in 2014, used in the context of subtle hints in body language for emotional discomfort. Although social distancing is much more frequently used than physical distancing, the introduction of the term is an active linguistic effort to reframe the required need to keep a distance. For example,
Shah [Dr. Nirav Shah, Director of the Maine CDC] said he preferred to replace the term “social distancing” with “physical distancing, but social connectedness and closeness.”Press Herald, 2020. Example taken from Corona Corpus.
Of course, many of us have now understood the importance of remaining socially connected while physically distant, but collectively contributing to a more frequent use of the term physical distancing and promoting a discourse of social connection is in itself an act of connecting with others who are currently experiencing the same apprehension that comes with self-isolating. And to remain in touch without touching, people exploit language in very creative ways and in a collective effort stick a discourse of solidarity, hope and unity to the experiences during quarantimes.
Staying connected is critical for societies to live through crises. In times like these, when the American team spirit is challenged by conspiracy believers and a President who demonstrates a precarious lack of both compassion and reason, it becomes all the more crucial to create social cohesion in innovative ways on the community level. Daniel Aldrich, who researches resilience and social ties in society, is one of the outspoken proponents of the preferred use of the term physical distancing over social distancing. He advocates for the positive linguistic implications the latter has, linguistically highlighting the necessity to keep a physical distance and, in contrast to social distancing, stressing the importance of remaining socially connected. According to his research, communities with strong social networks and healthy trust relations cohere stronger and can thus survive and recover more effectively after disasters. Community may take shape in many different forms, and it is currently difficult if not impossible to gather physically to connect socially. But living under the challenges of the pandemic that has had an impact on our individual lives has created the necessity to find ways of communal coping. And in this, language is what glues people together.
The virtual sphere has become the essential place where people can find community in solidarity, for the purpose of getting through the thick of it together. People are looking to connect over the need for social closeness. Some have for example started sharing thoughts and words in their corona diaries on social media and in other digital forms. Thus, besides being a hub for linguistic innovation, the internet offers many sites of creative linguistic coping. Twitter is probably the most prominent one. It is not only the place of origin for many of the prolific lexical output we observe, but the platform’s communicative affordances lend themselves to the current need to express and experience solidarity. In online interaction, singular words and expressions are stuck to each other and align in discourse around an issue. “Discourse is what gives coherence to seemingly fragmented expressions. Discourse is the scaffolding for scattered subjective utterances. In this sense, Social Media platforms not only empower and validate individual’s emotive understanding of the affairs but also encourage a dynamic of communication that rewards such behavior with a form of perceived validation.” (KhosraviNik 2018: 433). Affective affordances are inbuilt in the design of social media platforms and spur emotion-oriented communicative behavior. Examples are clicking the ‘heart’ symbol under a tweet to show agreement or using emoji and gifs to express more complex emotions and comments. This again encourages reposting, and thereby generates and spreads (often affect-laden) discourses. In their most toxic form, affective affordances of social media amplify the anti-rational positions that characterize the post-truth political discourse in the US, which are also a cause for concern during the pandemic (see the surge of the infodemic). But in its most positive output, social media’s affective design allows people to engage in encouraging discourses of shared experience and solidarity.
One of these particular affordances are hashtags. COVID-19 has brought forth quite a number of them, and even hashtags that were prominent before the pandemic like #MondayMotivation have been trending continuously since March. From a linguistic-discursive point of view, “hashtags, while a noted resource for indicating the topic of a post, have been seen as significant to construing opinion and sentiment in social media discourse.” (Zappavigna/White 2017: 5) This means that hashtags signpost not only a given topic (e.g., the hashtag #coronavirus), but people also use them to comment on their new life in the bubble in creative ways. Two of the most popular hashtags have been #stayhome and #staythefuckhome which signal that people follow self-isolation regulations and, at the same time, encourage others to do the same. The kinds of corona hashtags that are invented give a glimpse into people’s everyday struggles of dealing with loneliness, boredom, adapting to home office or coping with anxiety about the future. These hashtags offer an outlet for all kinds of emotions people wish to express.
One vent for human distress is humor, and this is also a major resource during the pandemic. Pop cultural references or satirical political commentary are frequent bases for playful or witty responses to life in times of corona. Many Twitter posts that contain gifs and memes “operate via a combination of intertextual recognizability and individual creativity” (Blommaert/Varis 2014: 15). Humor can bring some relief, but the shared (pop) cultural knowledge that is linked in intertextual and interdiscursive ways also brings people closer together. Even online corona shaming, pillorying the #covidiots who do not practice the regulations, is a way of sticking together: sticking the label #covidiot onto a group of people is the virtual equivalent of pointing a finger. By implication, this linguistic finger pointing creates a ‘We’ and a sense of togetherness in calling out those who seem to care little about a solidary way of curbing the pandemic. This way, people come together to protest in the virtual public sphere and claim public responsibility.
Engaging in creative activity itself, like the inventing and sharing of hashtags, is one way in which people find new forms of sociality. These kinds of socially shared, humorous and/or empathic linguistic practices have “particular power to create community because they simultaneously provide the content of discussion and implicitly invoke the group’s shared social meanings.” (Baym 2003: 1015). In this way, the virtual space – including other platforms like Instagram and TikTok – facilitates the forging of networks of solidarity. In order to deal with the current situation, people draw on different resources, both rational and emotional. They turn to authority and expertise and need to be able to rely on the government and its institutions to provide them with the information and guidance they need. A common phenomenon during crises is therefore the bump in leadership approval, which President Trump experienced at the onset of the pandemic in March – despite the loud public criticism of his disastrous dealing with the situation. While this effect is well-known, for Trump the rally-around-the flag approval bounce was comparably milder than for previous presidents who had to handle crises of a similar scale. Overall, the presidential approval rating is still low, and the people’s trust in the government is still profoundly damaged. It appears that when on the institutional level the management strategies are flawed, people turn to community to find ways of emotional guidance. In community, there is solidarity. Linguistic innovation, lexical re-framing and discursive affiliation are ways in which people creatively exploit linguistic and other semiotic resources to respond to the crisis in a supportive way. These linguistic coping mechanisms enable the public to “[take] ownership of the developing ‘national conversation’” and “to fill the gaps in the official narrative” (Thorne 2020). Sticking together through language is one way of finding communal ways of coping.
About the Author
Aline is currently a collegiate of the research training group “Authority & Trust” at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. In her PhD project she looks at charisma from a pragmatic-linguistic perspective and analyzes the ways in which Donald Trump’s authority is constructed in language, with a particular focus on the role of social media discourse. She is a founding member of the HCA Graduate Blog. You can get in touch with her on Twitter.
Baym, Nancy K. 2003. “Communication in Online Communities.” In Encyclopedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World, edited by Karen Christensen and David Levinson. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
KhosraviNik, Majid. 2018. “Social Media Techno-Discursive Design, Affective Communication and Contemporary Politics.” Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences 11 (4): 427–42.
Thorne, Tony. 2020. “#CORONASPEAK – the language of Covid-19 goes viral – 2.” Language and Innovation (blog). April 15, 2020. Accessed May 30, 2020.https://language-and-innovation.com/2020/04/15/coronaspeak-part-2-the-language-of-covid-19-goes-viral/
Varis, Piia, and Jan Blommaert. 2018. “Conviviality and Collectives on Social Media: Virality, Memes, and New Social Structures.” Multilingual Margins: A Journal of Multilingualism from the Periphery 2 (1): 31.
Zappavigna, Michele, and J.R. Martin. 2018. “#Communing Affiliation: Social Tagging as a Resource for Aligning around Values in Social Media.” Discourse, Context & Media 22: 4–12.