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Finding the right words for a world in crisis

Posted 29 September 2020

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As the UK heads into what looks like a second wave, we’ve been looking at how our vocabulary has changed as a country because of the crisis at hand. Words like social distancing, self-isolate, remote working, furlough and super-spreader have become household words. COVID-19 has expanded our vocabulary, especially in the health, medical and work-related fields.

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Translation in the new world of COVID-19 – translation has been key to conveying messages throughout the business community

This current crisis is really hanging on in there, and life as we knew it seems to be a distant memory. For translation companies like ours, we’ve seen new translation requests from all sectors relating to all things COVID-19. Documents have included rules and regulations and instructions to help stop the spread of the virus! As translators who strive to provide accurate information, it can be challenging. These are some of the buzzwords that have been used over the past few months according to Wired.com: –

  • Airborne – not referring to aircraft, but rather a virus’s ability to travel through or linger in the air long enough to spread infection. It’s believed that Coronavirus travels through the air via microscopic moisture droplets, in a cough or sneeze, for example. Although it does travel via air, it does fall to the ground and dissipates, thus only being airborne temporarily. This is one of the reasons why there is such a big emphasis on face masks and social distancing.
  • Community spread – This refers to the spread of the virus between people who had no connection to the original source. This was used often when the virus first started spreading outside of Wuhan, the virus’s place of origin. Now that the virus is present across the world, the majority of cases are community spread.
  •  Herd immunity – This term is used to explain when the majority of a given population is immune or has been inoculated against any strain of virus (in recent context, COVID-19) and therefore unlikely to spread to the majority of people who are still vulnerable. Herd immunity is considered to be effective when 70 to 90 per cent of the population is immune.
  • Flatten the curve – This is a phrase used by Boris Johnson’s government, to describe the need to reduce the number of coronavirus cases to manageable levels. Back in May, the virus spread exponentially, leading to a spike in cases threatening to overwhelm hospitals and other medical facilities. By following social distancing and lockdown rules, some communities have been able to slow the exponential growth and level out the curve.
  • Self-isolation – This refers to the seclusion of an infected person. Not to be confused with quarantine, his is the seclusion of people who may have been in contact with an infected person and need to be monitored until the virus’s incubation period had passed.
  • Lockdown – This is the term used to describe the situation when a government body mandates the country’s citizens to remain in their homes unless they have documentation that allows them outside.
  • Social distancing – The practice of avoiding contact with people outside of your own household, in order to prevent the spread of the virus. This includes staying at least six feet (2 meters) apart, avoiding large gatherings and limiting the time spent in crowded spaces.

These are just some of the words we’ve been hearing regularly during the battle against the virus, and there are many more. And we are not alone in this battle, as other countries too have their own set of new vocabulary. This truly emphasises that the pandemic is indeed a global issue as it has changed the vocabulary of almost every single language in a very short space of time.

Differences in other cultures and the rise of buzzwords and terms, not just in the English language but also in other languages.

Let’s take Japan, for example. It’s in very close proximity to China, the origin of COVID-19 and they have also had a similar curve pattern to that of the UK. They also have new phrases, aimed at clear communication to keep people safe. As written Japanese has 3 alphabets, they have chosen to use the katakana version, which is the preferred alphabet when directly borrowing certain words from another language. Thus, the word corona is borrowed followed by attaching the kanji 渦(ka). Altogether, when translated literally, it means corona disaster (コロナ渦). Many of the other terms like social distancing and remote working have also undergone the same treatment of being imported and used under the katakana alphabet. However, one difference is the use of the term ‘clusters’, instead of ‘bubbles’ which is the term used here in the UK.

Spain has its own set of vocabulary. For example, a popular word that’s popped up and is doing the social media rounds is ‘covidiota’ similar to ‘covidiot’ used in the UK. Another term used uniquely in Spanish speaking countries is ‘Cuarenpena’ – a compound word made up of cuarentena (quarantine) and pena (sorrow).

How are these changes going to affect our lives going into the new decade?

The start of this decade has been unique in more ways than one. The spread of a global pandemic has accelerated many things, like the shift of many companies from traditional outlets to moving online, the complete transformation of working life and the way we see remote work/working from home. Connection using online mediums like Zoom has increased exponentially, and new words are now dotted among our daily vocabulary.

As the threat of further lockdown measures looms here in the UK, there are a few positives to bear in mind. Remote work and digitalisation have moved forward by around five years, and our planet has had a breather from the mass-consumption that was our way of life. So, stay safe, learn some new skills so we can aim to be better and kinder people once we emerge from this pandemic – hopefully in 2021.

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