A little over six months ago, bubbles were synonymous with celebrations among friends and Corona was a beer served with a lime wedge.
Soon we had to learn about Social Distancing and the need to Self-Isolate if sick. Then came Lockdown, sparking Panic-Buying and an obsession to Flatten the Curve, needing the Team of Five Million to all do their bit. We embraced Virtual Happy Hour as Zoom wines helped us stay connected. Zoom became its own verb - but not in the way that we knew it to be. Shall we Zoom today? I'll Zoom you later.
We scowled at Covidiots, who became Superspreaders starting new Clusters, furthering the spread of Community Transmission. Fears of a Second Wave have kept new arrivals in Managed Isolation and Close Contacts are Quarantined. Oh, the Rona. Can we even remember The Before Times? We had to learn how to WFH as our lives continue to be dictated by Covid alert levels. Frontline workers still need their PPE and our online ordering arrives by Contactless Delivery. Long-haulers no longer refer to flights across the world but to those suffering the effects of Covid-19 months down the track.
Our language has exploded in the last six months. What other time in history has seen such a sudden uptake in so many new terms? The words themselves are not necessarily new but, paired with others, take on new meaning in the time of the pandemic. Our words help mark and define moments in history.
I'm fascinated by these new phrases. And will they last? Will a Corona ever be cracked open again in future without being accompanied by a joke about Covid-19?
I decided to phone my sister in Motueka, Catherine Campbell. Catherine is a speech and language therapist specialising in oral language and, if anyone was up for a casual lunchtime chat about language evolution during a pandemic, it would be her.
"A language is a living thing," she tells me, "it's quite nice to think of it as a plant that you have growing in your garden, because it grows and it comes back. And a little bit might die off. Then you might get a new shoot from there or one part might have died off forever but you have some growth somewhere else."
Language, as it turns out, is just like my peace lily. Bits of it constantly dying out, then seemingly out of nowhere, a new shoot would appear. Then I stopped watering it and now it's as dead as Latin.
Is language developed by historical events? No matter what mother tongue you speak, it's made up of layers and layers of history. Words come and go. And that's why Latin is considered a dead language as no new words can be added to it. It cannot evolve anymore.
"It's more than just whether it's spoken or not," Catherine explains. "When it's dead, it's closed off. It's literally dead and buried and no new words can come into that repertoire. Whereas English is alive. It's a living thing because we add new words to it, as we discovered with the pandemic."
Let's take social distancing, for example. An oxymoron for sure? Prior to 2020, it would be fair to assume there are two distinct choices - to be social or to be distanced from others. This year, social distancing has become the norm when it comes to mixing and mingling with others - or, rather, not mingling.
"This pandemic has brought two seemingly opposite words together. And another good one that's really unique to New Zealand is that we're seeing this incorporation of te reo words with an English word," says Catherine. "A good example of that is the word 'zui'. So a Zoom-hui and you're putting that together to have your zui."
Language evolves not only with historical events but also culture and the lens through which that culture views the world. Social distancing tends to be the phrase of choice in Aotearoa, while other countries prefer physical distancing, which perhaps is easier to translate into other languages, than a concept like social distancing. In te reo Māori, the term for social distancing, Tū Tīrara, means literally, "to stand spaced apart".
Then there are other communities with their own cultural nuances. Florida's Leon County posted a message on Facebook at one stage to "keep at least one large alligator between you and everyone else" to help give a visual representation of distance required.
When we think about the messaging from our Prime Minister during the pandemic, Catherine points out how Jacinda Ardern chooses her words with a sense of unity, to engage the people of New Zealand, in a way not all leaders around the world have done.
"It's no accident that she's chosen words that are familiar, like 'bubble'. Who doesn't love a bubble? That's got nice connotations, whether it's your bubble bath or the bubbles in your champagne, that's a very positive word that she's chosen."
Catherine and I have Norwegian ancestry, so we wondered what kind of pandemic-related words would be used on the other side of the world, in a country with a similar population to Aotearoa.
In Norwegian, there's a term, "dugnad", which translates to volunteer work or to help as a community or team and is deeply ingrained in the Norwegian psyche. When added to "korona" it becomes "koronadugnad", meaning the collective effort to do good against coronavirus. Like New Zealand's "team of five million". And koronadugnad works well in Norway, because the idea of working together collectively is a key part of the Norwegian culture and work ethic.
A distinctly Norwegian concept is "hytteskam" or "cabin shame". Norwegians are famous for their love of holiday cabins but, in the time of coronavirus, travelling to your cabin when you should be staying home is shameful and goes against the concept of "koronadugnad".
Another personal Norwegian favourite is the word "a
hamstre", which is their equivalent of panic-buying. It means quite literally "to hamster", referring to the rodents stockpiling their nuts and seeds in their cheeks.
Words come and go all the time in languages. Remember how the slang word "munted" became the buzz word to describe earthquake damage in Christchurch? And how everyone in Canterbury could confidently talk about liquefaction?
"No one had heard of the word liquefaction before,' says Catherine. "But then, everyone could talk about it. Everyone! 'Oh there's some liquefaction.' We were all experts, we could all spot liquefaction 50m away. Obviously the word had been around but only a few very technical people knew that word."
On a more sobering note, words like "terrorism" never featured in my childhood vocabulary, but in 2020, my sister's 9-year-old daughter used the term "mass shooting" in a family game of Scattergories to describe a crime starting with the letter "M".
"What a sad time. Compared to our childhood, we wouldn't have known the term 'mass shooting'. It's another good example of 'mass' plus 'shooting' - you wouldn't have necessarily thought to put them together and now it's a term our children know."
Word choices matter. They influence how we think and respond to events. And each and every word or phrase should be celebrated, says Catherine, even in a time of a pandemic, even if it's slang, even if it's confronting.
"Embrace the joy of language because it's a fascinating topic and it starts with just noticing it. I encourage people to notice words and notice language and start celebrating it - even in the time of a pandemic, you can still get excited about these new words popping up."
Chur, sis. Hope we can share bubbles soon - preferably the champagne kind.