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The Ropes

COVID-19 outbreak spawns a lexical innovation: “Coronaspeak”

By Barbara McClintock, Certified Translator

COVID-19, caused by a coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2, has now earned a place in the history books, joining the ranks of the plague (1400s), Spanish Flu (1918), SARS (2003), AIDS and Swine Flu, as a communicable disease and an international public health crisis. On March 13, 2020, the Québec government asked Quebecers to stay home in an effort to flatten the epidemic curve. In other words, the public was asked to self-isolate to prevent a flood of people ostensibly affected by COVID-19 going to hospital ERs at the same time and also to protect the more vulnerable people, such as the elderly, who were asked to stay home. People in self-isolation have expressed their feelings by dancing, singing and playing instruments on their balconies, as well as thinking up new words. 

In fact, so many terms have been created to reflect the new reality that some language researchers are talking about “coronaspeak.” In addition to new coinages, a number of existing terms have become more commonly used, such as quarantine, lockdown and self-isolation. Let’s have a look at a few of these expressions.

  • Contact tracing

    The work of people hired to identify those who may have been exposed to an infected person. Contact tracer may not be a new occupation, but it has become more common in the fight against a highly contagious disease.


    Physically avoiding others when out in public.


    Someone who ignores public health advice.

    Elbow bump

    A way of greeting someone without shaking hands.

    Planking the curve

    Canadians were asked not just to flatten the epidemic curve by staying home, but to use physical distancing to “plank” it.

As for the COVID-19 vocabulary. . .

Should we say quarantine or self-isolation? According to the Translation Bureau’s new Glossary on the COVID-19 Pandemic,1 quarantine is the correct term to use under the Quarantine Act. However, probably to ensure good communication, the word quarantine is sometimes replaced by or accompanied by the expression “self-isolation.” For example, on March 25, 2020, the federal Health Minister announced that “Travellers returning to Canada will be subject to a mandatory 14-day self-isolation under the Quarantine Act.”2 

The terminology regarding COVID-19 is evolving. As the contagion spread, most people, except essential workers, were encouraged to self-isolate. This in turn became mandatory in some cases and morphed into a new norm called a “lockdown” (confinement in French), defined as “an emergency protocol intended to limit the movement of a person for a variety of reasons, such as public health or public safety.”3 These days, the expression “physical distancing” recommended by the World Health Organization is quickly replacing “social distancing.” And a future addition to this vocabulary is very likely to be “second wave.” 


  2. (emphasis added)

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