There was a time, not that long ago, when the word “quarantine” was primarily reserved for those attempting to drive into Australia’s fruit fly zone with a box of peaches in the car. “Lockdown” might have been used by prison guards attempting to get rioting prisoners back in their cells. “Corona” was a Mexican beer often sneered at but regularly consumed and “pivot” was used almost exclusively to heckle those trying to move a large sofa up several flights of stairs in a nod to Ross Gellar from Friends.
If we ever wanted to truly test the elasticity of the English language, this would be the year do it. COVID-19 has been the topic on everybody’s lips since early March, and collectively we have spent the last eight months searching for ways to communicate its impact on our lives.
Old words have been repurposed with new meanings, medical terminology has made it into the mainstream, innocuous remarks became stock phrases (“unprecedented times”, anyone?) and our vocabulary expanded to make room for the new words that articulate a new normal.
Our vocabulary has expanded to include new words to articulate a new normal. Image: iStock
The language of lockdown
From “quarantini” (a cocktail made at home) to “covidiot” (a person who fails to abide by government health advice), the coronavirus has led to an explosion of freshly coined words and expressions in all manner of languages.
A few of our favourites from around the world include:
Coronaspeck (noun) (German): weight gained during lockdown as a result of eating more than usual because of working from home. Adapted from kummerspeck, kummer (worry) + “speck” (bacon).
On-nomi (verb) (Japanese): having a drink while chatting with friends online. From “on” (online) + nomi (drink).
Hamsterkauf (noun) (German): panic buying in order to hoard. From hamstern (to hoard, derived from the hamster, which stores food in its cheeks) + kaufen (to buy).
Huidhonger (noun) (Dutch): a longing for human contact while in isolation. From huid (skin) + honger (hunger).
Apérue (noun) (French): a pre-dinner drink on the streets while bars and restaurants are confined to outdoor service. From apéro (aperitif) + rue (street).
Unsurprisingly, much of Australia’s own lockdown lingo has evolved from our appreciation of good old Aussie slang. Diminutive terms such as “iso”, “the Rona”, “quazzie” and “sanny” are now as common in modern parlance as “cuppa” and “Maccas”. Central Queensland University's head of professional communication, Celeste Lawson, says Australians’ use of slang creates a sense of community and helps us to bring us closer together.
"Traditionally as Australians, we have a laid-back attitude which is further represented in the way we talk. It’s not that we are lazy; we use lingo to make ourselves feel more comfortable, which is particularly relevant in times of crisis such as this," she says.
In April, the Oxford English Dictionary announced it was making an extraordinary update to include “COVID-19” and words related to the pandemic in its definitive record of the English language. In her release notes, executive editor Bernadette Paton said the revision and addition of words such as “self-isolate” and “WFH” would “help tell the story of these times that will inevitably become embedded in our language”.
The Oxford English Dictionary added words such as “self-isolate” and the “WFH” acronym to its definitive record of the English language. Image: iStock
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic is hardly the first crisis to command a whole new vocabulary of words and phrases.
The trenches of World War I proved fertile ground for the now commonplace expression “having a chat” to describe a group of soldiers sitting around and talking while picking off their body lice, which they called “chats”. World War II gave us “AWOL” – the official military term for Absent Without Official Leave – and more recently Britain’s decision to leave the European Union produced the portmanteau “Brexit” and added new weight to the words “leave” and “remain”.
Still, no one event in history has triggered such dramatic linguistic change, according to British sociolinguist Robert Lawson, who attributes the amount of lockdown lingo to the speed at which the virus has spread, its dominance in the media and the fact that we are more connected than ever before.
"The scale of our online connections means there are now far more opportunities for individuals to coin a new term and share it beyond their immediate local communities," he says.
How brands can use language effectively during COVID-19
So, what does all this mean for us as wordsmiths working to help our clients “pivot” their messaging in these “unprecedented times” and communicate effectively with their audiences during a crisis? At times it has felt almost impossible to find the words to describe what we’re facing, but in a world where communication is key to creating long-term brand value, choosing your words carefully has never been more important.
Here are three lessons we've learned about using language effectively in content marketing during COVID-19.
1. Write with empathy and authenticity
Consumers need brands to help make their lives easier, now more than ever. Before hitting “publish”, pause and think about how your words are adding value to your audience. Are you sharing information or answering their questions? Are you offering them comfort? Clarity? Entertainment? Education?
Stay vigilant for words and phrases that have now taken on a different meaning and could be interpreted as insensitive or tone deaf – such as viral, killer and health-related metaphors.
And keep in mind that each person is experiencing this pandemic differently. Some are trying to juggle childcare with working from home. Others are essential healthcare workers on the frontline. Many people have lost work, some have lost friends and family to COVID-19, so avoid generalisations and tailor your messaging to different audiences where possible. For Mercedes, this meant using different language for Melbourne audiences to support them through the recent Victorian lockdown.
“Stay strong, Melbourne” was Mercedes’ message to Victorians in lockdown. Image: supplied
Looking forward, think about creating some audience personas to help you understand your audience on a deeper level and create more relevant and personalised content based on what motivates them.
Sometimes, though, it also pays to keep it simple:
2. Steer clear of clichés
“All in this together”; “herd immunity”; “new normal” were among the phrases that saw the highest increase in usage during COVID-19 according to an analysis of news sites by media monitoring firm Streem and reported by AdNews.
But it was “uncertain times” that topped Streem’s list of most overused pandemic buzzwords, with usage increasing by a staggering 3155 per cent in March to June when compared with July to December in 2019.
Dictionary.com asked its Twitter followers to share the words and phrases they never wanted to hear again after the pandemic and helpfully provided suggestions for alternatives, although we’re unsure about swapping “social distancing” for “civil separation”.
And it wasn’t just the copywriters having trouble coming up with new material. This US ad compilation ‘Every COVID-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same’ illustrates the same piano music, images of empty streets and promises to “be there” from Apple and Aldi to Mazda and Mastercard.
In a piece for the Content Marketing Institute, Ann Glynn argues that while content creators love using clichés because they are top of mind, convey a concept easily and may be popular with the intended audience, they are “lazy”.
"The very definition of cliché – a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays lack of original thought – means you should rarely, if ever, use them in your writing,” she says.
"I see many instances where COVID-19 clichés can be removed and not replaced. Everybody knows we’re living in a pandemic. With almost everything your audience reads, it brings that context. You probably don’t need to write about ‘living in unprecedented times.’ Just get to your point."
3. Move with the times
The language and overall tone of the content you created at the beginning of the pandemic should be different to the language you’re using now.
Back in March, it was all about offering information and reassurance to audiences who were attempting to navigate their way through a lot of unknowns. For Rawson Homes, this meant total transparency to answer a question on a lot of their customers' minds: What does my home building journey look like during COVID-19? For HCF Health Agenda, it was clear and accurate health guidance on symptoms such as Coronavirus or flu? Your guide to knowing the difference.
As we settled into social distancing and staying at home, The Star kept us educated, entertained and inspired with articles such as Create a spa worthy facial at home, Must-have spices for your pantry and a beginner’s guide to scaling fish with the help of expert chefs.
Now, it’s all about looking towards life beyond lockdown through a cautiously optimistic lens. For Mercedes, this meant energising audiences to start planning for brighter days ahead; whether that’s exploring travel opportunities in your own backyard or getting excited for the return of Formula 1.
This November, the Oxford English Dictionary will announce its word of the year: "a word or expression judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year, and have a lasting potential as a term of cultural significance”.
In 2019, it was “climate emergency” chosen from an all-environmental shortlist. In 2016 – the year of the EU referendum and the US presidential elections – it was “post-truth”. In 2013, it was “selfie”.
As for 2020, the pandemic has certainly provided the OED editors with plenty of contenders. And regardless of whether you believe “iso” should be immortalised in print, or even live on beyond lockdown, nobody can deny the important role language has played in helping us all come to terms with our “new normal”.
Jo Davy, managing editor