Did you know any of these terms before Covid-19?

What we learned so far
What we learned so far
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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It’s the end of 2020, and around the world, we’re having socially distant meetings, wearing PPE, and hoping we—or those we encounter—aren’t asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19.

A year ago, not only was the virus unknown to us—it didn’t even have a name—but most of the terms in the sentence above were not part of our daily vocabulary. The pandemic (and how often did you use that word before March 2020?) forced us to change the way we live, and work. In doing so, it also changed the way we behave, and speak, as other crises have done before in history.

Since this was a global health catastrophe, many of the lexical changes have been health-related. How many of these terms do you use now that you never used prior to this most unexpected year?

Coronavirus (see also: novel coronavirus, corona, ‘rona, Covid-19)

It feels like ancient history now, but remember it took a couple of weeks for the World Health Organization (WHO) to name the virus that was going to close the world down.

Up until Feb. 11, 2020, the name for the virus was simply “novel coronavirus”—as in, a newly emerged virus of the coronavirus family. Everyone back then was calling it just coronavirus, much to the distress of those who kept highlighting this was possible grounds for confusion—the SARS virus was a coronavirus; the MERS virus was a coronavirus, and future coronaviruses will likely emerge, too.

Then the WHO finally announced a name for the novel coronavirus, and it was possibly the most obvious name in the history of naming, and the question of how could it take so long to come up with it was only marginally answered by the complex politics  (yes, politics) of giving pathogens a name. There we had it: Covid-19—actually, COVID-19, all caps, where CO is for corona, VI is for virus, D for disease, and 19, confusing as it might have been for some, is for the year the virus emerged.

Having a name for the virus didn’t actually dissuade people from calling it coronavirus anyway, and even the friendlier “corona” and the casual “rona”. Eventually, however, Covid-19 caught on.

Social distancing

In March, Google saw a spike in search for the expression “social distancing.” Users wondered what it meant, how it worked, what were the guidelines. It’s understandable—prior to this year, it had only been a technical term used in scientific papers of epidemiology studies. Now it’s common parlance, and it is far more common than the much clearer “physical distancing.”

Although the general concept is well known now—keep a safe distance between you and those who aren’t in your household—the specifics of what that distance looks like vary somewhat. In the US, a safe distance is considered six feet—or about two meters. In Spain and Germany, for instance, a meter and a half is considered safe, and in France, China, or Denmark a meter is fine.

Self-isolation (and quarantine)

Quarantine was a pretty well-known term even prior to this list, but it was certainly not as frequent a part of casual conversations as it is now. It came to identify a specific 2020 condition—that of having tested positive to Covid-19, or having potentially been exposed, and spending about 10 days to three weeks (depending on the regulations) away from all other people, in order to protect them from potential contagion.

But another related term that became rather popular is “self-isolation.” The concept is the same, though the use of “self” seems to emphasize that it’s not an imposed measure, but one that the individual is bringing on themselves “out of an abundance of caution” (how often did you use this term, in 2020?). This also seems to differentiate self-isolation from general isolation—in that it’s the self and not others who decides on the isolation.


Do you know what PPE means? It’s personal protective equipment—but the acronym has become so commonplace it’s used in writing and even speech. Masks, gloves, goggles, face shields, hazmat suits—everything that will stop the virus from getting to you is PPE. Judging by the volume of Google search, most people learned what PPE meant by May, although some continued to be confused by the acronym.

But PPE doesn’t only exist in epidemiological contexts—a hard hat is also PPE, and so are a firefighter’s uniform and headphones worn by road workers to protect them from loud sounds.


Before this year, a lockdown—typically a temporary measure preventing entrance or exit into one or more buildings—was something that occurred rarely and usually in circumstances associated with violence, like a campus shooting or a terrorist attack.

Other than that, there had been one prior instance in which people had actively been searching the term “lockdown”—the release of Kanye West’s song Love Lockdown, in 2009. 

But this year it came to mean something at once less intense and much bigger. Entire cities, entire countries went into lockdown—for days, weeks even. As with social distancing, the term had different nuances in different places, and at different times. In some cases, it was an order to stay indoors pretty much at all times (remember Italians singing from their balconies and New Yorkers cheering for health workers at 7pm every night?), while in others just a series of restrictions imposed on part of the population.

Essential worker (or frontline worker)

Getting through 2020 required a heroic effort on the part of many—but arguably nobody did more than the working heroes who kept the world going as those who could stayed put, in lockdown. Healthcare workers, cleaning staff, grocery store employees, transportation workers, postal workers, couriers and many others—we learned to call them “essential workers.”

These workers are essential in any year. In 2020, however, they conducted their jobs in the face of the direct threat of being exposed to Covid-19, so another phrase emerged to characterize their efforts:”frontline worker.”

mRNA (messenger RNA) 

As the world begins to see a way out of this crisis, it is learning a new term: mRNA, or messenger RNA. This is a new technology upon which the first two vaccines for Covid-19 approved in the US are based.

The world is just beginning to learn about it—and finding answers to its questions—although it will soon become just another word we learned during this year. And for a change, it will be one that has a hopeful sound.