Randi Kreiss

Covid-19 took so much, even our words


Once upon a time, a super-spreader was a nifty tool for installing grout during a tiling job. Then we blinked, a virus leaped from a bat to a person and the world wobbled on its axis. Within weeks we crashed from a functioning society, with reasonable expectations for living full lives, to a dysfunctional country coping poorly with a global pandemic.

In our new reality, super-spreader has been repurposed to mean a social gathering where people sick with the coronavirus infect large numbers of other people. In the old times, you could buy a super-spreader for $31.88. And chances are it wouldn’t kill you.

Covid-19 has transformed not just the way we live and go to work and school, how we shop and how we access medical care, how we travel and how we raise our children. The virus has hijacked our language.

A mask is now universally recognized as a face covering to protect people from the coronavirus. The lowly cloth worn to cover nose and mouth can also be a charged political statement. Not wearing a mask in a place where masks are mandatory is an act of defiance.

Only two years ago, face coverings were pretty much associated with surgeons, Halloween or certain religious observances. Now we conduct our lives by where and how we wear our masks.

We need a dictionary of the pandemic.

What about the word refresh? You may think of a splash of cold water or running a comb through your hair, but I think of spending many hours for many days in a row trying to get appointments online for our vaccines. I would go to the designated site and then begin refreshing, over and over, hoping to land a shot. Eventually I did, after an unreasonable amount of repetitive key clicking.

Before the pandemic, when I heard the world bleach, I thought of how much clothing I’ve ruined by splashing Clorox in the wrong places. But then, at the peak of the Covid surge around the country, there was the former president suggesting that people might inject bleach into their bodies to fight the virus. It was a singular moment in presidential briefings; the lunacy of the suggestion prompted Dr. Deborah Birx, on the stage to one side of the president, to twist her face in a silent agony of disbelief. It erased for all time the notion that bleach is just bleach.

Will anyone ever hear the words refrigerator truck again and not flash back to the grim parade of trucks repurposed as morgues and lined up outside New York hospitals? Perhaps the new word associations are a kind of PTSD. I was driving on a highway recently, and when a refrigerator truck pulled alongside, I instantly recalled the dark days of New York City in the grip of the virus.

For all my life, Q has been the regal 17th letter of the alphabet. Now, Q, short for QAnon, is inextricably tied to the political fringe group that metastasized among millions of Americans, spreading false information about the pandemic and misinformation about the scientists on the front lines of fighting the disease. Not to mention that Q followers have challenged the results of the 2020 presidential election and supported the Jan. 6 insurrection at our Capitol. I cannot hear Q without feeling anxious for our democracy and our ability to have free and safe elections.

How many of us were familiar with the term flatten the curve? And yet we heard that every day for months as scientists urged us to isolate and mask up to stop the awful surges of the pandemic. Those three words are changed forever in my mind.

Even the word virus is heard differently. We have known viruses in our time, but this one quickly assumed Infectious Disease Hall of Fame status. We have protection from measles and polio and mumps. But for a long time, we were completely vulnerable to the Covid super bug.

Once upon a time, a pod was thought of as a covering of a pea or a storage unit. Suddenly a pod became a small, safe group of family members or friends who socially distance together to limit exposure to Covid. The word even became a verb: to pod with a friend in the interest of mutual good health.

Language is a living thing, evolving over time. The pandemic experience has co-opted our shared lexicon. It has appropriated words and led us to coin new ones to describe a time of profound loss and grief.

Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.