And in an instant, our world and our language changed. Words matter, (as someone who works in communications I would say that), so I’ve taken a look at how and why our language is influencing our lives now, and probably for a generation to come.

We are all currently being bombarded with buzzwords, shaped by government and medical advisors, for a purpose. And the press and social media are identifying and repeating these words.

You’ll have noticed certain phrases being used again and again - unprecedented (times), quarantine, self-isolating/ion, pandemic, social-distancing, lockdown, hot/red zone, flattening the curve, underlying health issues, key workers, vulnerable people...

I hear war rhetoric from politicians. In the US, Trump declared himself a wartime president and talks of defeating a foreign virus, deliberately stoking nationalist fervour. In the UK, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said, “We have never, in peacetime, faced an economic fight like this one.” It is indeed a public health and financial emergency, requiring politicians to work together and mobilise citizens of the country and even the military.  But I personally don’t think it’s anything like sending millions of young men to fight other countries over territory - this virus discriminates, but is not slaying people based on gender or race. And as with multiple sclerosis (MS), our community prefers to consider how best to live with, manage and control the chronic illness, not waste energy battling it.

And what do these new phrases mean to us?  I’m not keen on the negativity of the language so I’m trying to reframe how I think about the words more positively. We have the power to give words meaning:

  1. Self-isolation - is this not more staying at home? Home is hopefully a happy place, not one of isolation, with loved ones, treasured memories, photographs, entertainment and a cafe!

  2. Quarantine - I’ve always thought this was for dogs and pets when travelling abroad. It conjures up a hostile picture of KEEP AWAY. But, as with animals, we all still need human kindness, attention and warmth.

  3. Lockdown - an emergency response, initiated by an authority, that prevents people from leaving an area. But now, governments are advising us to stay at home (see #1). We are having to get used to doing things differently and perhaps it’s good if they seem unnatural - not shaking hands/hugging, exercising alone, not going out - as we will all be desperate to get back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible.

  4. Social-distancing - now, the same as #1. But that doesn’t mean you have to social-distance completely or digitally - quite the opposite.  It’s even more important to connect with friends, family and work colleagues online, to keep talking and keep in touch. The “social” is actually physical distancing. 

  5. Working from home - but definitely not working ‘remotely’. We have so many ways to communicate with colleagues who may simply be dispersed physically. In fact we may be sharing our homes, our children, our lives and getting to know more work colleagues in different ways and during unusual, stressful circumstances. We are building stronger teams for the future. We are also creating new norms - a short virtual coffee break, Friday night drinks after work, cross-functional action teams...

(I also do understand authorities are trying to create phrases that are easy to understand and communicate. By creating social-distancing, officials have gotten across the need for physical distance in social settings where an existing word might not have had the same clarity.)

There are many stories of communities coming together like never before. Where I live in the South of England, we have a street WhatsApp and a village Mutual Aid group. People are not as friendly as from my Derbyshire roots, but I find saying hello to strangers, chatting and saying thanks to those still working in shops, waving back at my postman, looking people in the eye and smiling all go a long way. Kindness, understanding and compassion are the order of the day. 

Finally, I am interested in understanding more about the wording of this new disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines coronaviruses as a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases.The name comes from the Latin word "corona", which means "crown" or "halo", and refers to the shape of the virus particle when viewed under a microscope.

Covid-19 is the disease caused by a "novel coronavirus" which originated in Wuhan, China. On February 11 the WHO named the disease COVID-19 – short for Coronavirus Disease.

That’s enough medical speak. In general we should all make our language as simple as possible - talk about spreading not transmitting, hand-washing not hygiene, etc.

I would extend my article to describe home-schooling but it’s two days in and it’s too raw. I'm fed up with being called Mrs M and I’ve already threatened to bring back the cane.

Hide commentsShow comments

Karen Mason (not verified)

In NZ we have a Maori word 'rahui'. Translated (as much as possible) this means a prohibition against a particular area or activity, typically one in force temporarily in order to protect a resource. There is a lovely post going around on FB:
"I am dropping the work 'lockdown' from my vocabulary. I prefer to think of the next 4 weeks as a 'rahui', because this is about honouring the earth, protecting the people and nourishing the spirit - all for the greater good."
Kia kaha, kia haumaru (stay strong, stay safe) Karen


Thanks Karen. That's so much better. I agree, lockdown sounds oppressive.

Martin (not verified)

This is an excellent article, Rachel. I agree in making language as simple as possible despite living in the 21st century where we, as a people, have become shallow and selfish. We even fooled ourselves into believing otherwise after the passing of Caroline Flack. That human tragedy even had its own hashtag which made people feel better about themselves. But then came COVID-19 and in a heartbeat, post Caroline, we saw how meaningless #BeKind was as it quickly lost traction to #StockpileToiletRolls

When we come through lockdown as we surely will, the hope is that we're all the better for the experience by being less dependent on a hashtag to communicate. Language doesn't have to be that simple. After all, being kind doesn't need a hashtag. All it needs is thoughtfulness and if people have that then kindness will stick to it closer than a hashtag ever could.

Stay safe.

Agnes Jowett (not verified)

Great article. These terms irritate me, especially lockdown. I'm sure some people think they will literally be locked into their homes and are still panic buying.
I refer to myself as physically challenged, not disabled. But people don't see past the walker and I get treated as if I'm 108, not 58. I can sling it into a car one handed, constantly frustrated when others insist on doing it when they don't have my manual handling skills. It's got paint chips all over it and rust so I will now have to paint it.

Trudi (not verified)

Thank you for the wise words. Absolutely correct, it's not a war, it's a situation we must manage as best as we can.


Hi Trudi, thanks for your comment. Indeed, it's a time to reflect, stay connected and look after ourselves and our loved ones.

Muhawala (not verified)

Love this. Especially "And as with multiple sclerosis (MS), our community prefers to consider how best to live with, manage and control the chronic illness, not waste energy battling it." Can so relate!


Thanks Muhawala, we don't use fighting language - there are so many more positive ways to talk about living with MS. Stay safe and well.