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Cocooning, covidiots and quarantinis: how coronavirus jargon went viral

Kim Bielenberg on how the pandemic became a super spreader of dodgy quotes and hackneyed phrases


Sketchy behaviour: A mural in Berlin featuring Gollum and Scrat with a message reading “my precious”

Sketchy behaviour: A mural in Berlin featuring Gollum and Scrat with a message reading “my precious”

Sketchy behaviour: A mural in Berlin featuring Gollum and Scrat with a message reading “my precious”

On February 11 in Geneva, a brand new term was uttered by Tedros Adhanom, head of the World Health Organisation.

"I'll spell it," the director-general said carefully to the assembled global media. "C-O-V-I-D hyphen one nine." It is the word that will define this year, and possibly the decade.

Whatever other legacies the virus will bestow on us, it has had an impact on our language, with a whole lexicon of occasionally mystifying words and phrases.

As far as the menacing spread of neologisms and jargon is concerned, Covid-19 has been the biggest "super spreader event" of the century. There does not seem to be any herd immunity from this newfangled verbiage. When it comes to bamboozling jargon, clichés, and random quotes in the Covid-19 crisis, "the limit does not exist".

The last phrase was used by Leo Varadkar, and it was borrowed from the 2004 teenage comedy film Mean Girls, apparently after the Taoiseach was dared to do so by actor Sean Astin from Lord of the Rings. That was after our most powerful politician quoted a line uttered by Astin (who played Samwise Gamgee in the movie trilogy) in an earlier statement.

As one commentator has noted, Varadkar has found his inner hobbit during this crisis. Quoting directly from the JRR Tolkien epic, he said: "In the end, it's only a passing thing, this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines, it'll shine out the clearer." In other words, don't worry, the bars will soon open, and the hairdressers will have their scissors out in phase 3.

When it comes to contamination with a bewildering array of infectious terminology, there is no sign that the country is "flattening the curve". That was the term used for trying to bring down the steep slope in the graph as the number of cases grew.

New Zealand's government went to greater extremes to stop the virus and was said to have "crushed the curve".

Throughout the crisis, Boris Johnson has seemed incapable of gravitas and talked about how he would "squash that sombrero". Blundering Boris has seemed like a model statesman when compared with Donald Trump, who started out suggesting that Covid-19 was no more serious than the "common flu". Since then he has drawn criticism for referring to the disease as the "Chinese virus" and even "kung flu".

How we long for the days before January of this year, when knowledge of the term 'coronavirus' was largely confined to earnest scientists in white coats and goggles. But we are all virologists, immunologists and epidemiologists now.

Any "covideo" party bore can regale us with the latest details of the "case fatality rate", the "incubation period", and the shameful shortage of "PPE" - personal protective equipment.

They may have had plenty of time to do so now that they may be on "furlough", the strangely Americanised term for being laid off temporarily.

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One can only look back with fondness to a time, just four months ago, when the word "covidiot" was unheard of. This was the finger-wagging technical term for the individual who insisted on flagrantly ignoring public health advice by, say, sunbathing and drinking cans in the park. Then the Taoiseach was spotted drinking a can with his top off in the Phoenix Park, and it became the "new normal".

Early in the crisis, we wagged our fingers at the "covidiots" who responded to the pandemic by loading their shopping trolleys with toilet rolls.

Before it became part of everyday parlance, "cocooning" was thought to be a stage in the lifecycle of a butterfly. Then its meaning suddenly referred to forcing old people to stay at home.


The Government defined "cocooning" as a "measure to protect people who are over 70 and those who are extremely medically vulnerable by minimising all interaction between them and others".

With over-70s confined to their homes, "cocooning" sounded so much more reassuring than what was in effect house arrest.

Varadkar veered between uplifting lines from Seamus Heaney and the sort of quote you would read on a T-shirt bought in a €1 store: "Not all superheroes wear capes… some wear scrubs and gowns."

It was left to Tony Holohan, as big a celebrity as Ryan Tubridy by now, to give us the definitive expert commentary on "community transmission".

The chief medical officer told the nation: "While Ireland remains in a containment phase, we will eventually move to delay phase and then on to mitigation phase."

Few had the foggiest notion of what he was talking about, but it had a reassuring air to it.

Holohan knew how to put things delicately. Asked whether people should follow the Dutch model and have a "sex buddy", he talked euphemistically of "engagements between people in different households" and "intimate contact".

The video-conferencing app Zoom came of age in the crisis, and there were mentions of the "elephant in the zoom" (a bizarre and unforeseen happening in a digital meeting that nobody cares to mention, such as an MEP not wearing trousers).

In the longueurs of the lockdown, some were tempted to indulge in "zoomshaming", pointing out the trashy volumes and tasteless knick-knacks on participants' bookshelves.

Some of the new Covid-19 terms have caught on more than others. Anybody for a "quarantini" (an alcoholic drink consumed at home) or will it be a "locktail"? Or are you too busy "doomscrolling" (addictively following grim coronavirus news) or "zoombombing" (intruding on private video-conference meetings)?

Of course, the language has varied across the world. In parts of America, the virus is known as "Miss Rona" or "the rona".

In Germany, the panic buyers who hoarded food were said to be engaging in a "hamsterkauf" ('hamster buying'), while "coronaspeck" (corona fat) is defined as the fat deposited by weeks of stay-at-home grazing.

It remains to be seen how many of these phrases will survive as the virus subsides. They could disappear as Covid-19 vanishes. But then we could have a second wave and they really will be the new normal.

Thank God for social distancing.

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