A guide to COVID-19 slang
~ so you can communicate in Coronaspeak ~
- To stuff one’s cheeks (verb)
Panic buying for beginners
Sign-language interpreters rarely get noticed, let alone upstage the person they’re signing for. But during the early stages of the coronavirus epidemic in Europe, a Dutch signer went viral when she translated a government minister’s warning not to hoard food with a pinched nose and rodent-like clawing with her hands. She was signing the word “hamsteren”, which means stuffing food into your cheeks like a hamster, or, as it’s more commonly used, to hoard.
The Netherlands prides itself on frugality and household thrift. So until recently the verb mostly had jolly connotations: annual supermarket promotional events (“de hamsterweken”) rewarded star hamsters who were stocking up on supplies. Germans use a similar word, “Hamsterkauf”. Whereas the English word “hoarding” refers to something secretive, which happens when nobody is watching, “hamsteren” is clearly visible and speaks to the much-celebrated Dutch openness.
Openness has turned to shame as the outbreak advanced. In the Netherlands, as elsewhere, people have “hamstered” in supermarkets as they worried about disruptions to supply chains and being isolated indoors. “Hamsteren is not nice,” Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, said in a press conference; later he called it “retarded”. Shops are calling on people to stop the practice too, and social-media memes ridicule the hoarders. Albert Heijn, a supermarket chain that organises annual hamster weeks, called off the yearly promotion that was supposed to start in April. The Dutch had already filled their cheeks.
by Sacha Nauta
- ghost game (noun)
A football match needs more than 22 players
March 11th was an odd milestone for German football: it was the first ever Geisterspiel, or ghost game in the Bundesliga, German football’s top-flight division. As coronavirus was spreading across the country, the city of Mönchengladbach in west Germany decreed that the match against FC Cologne, a Rhineland derby, would now take place without fans. Inside the deserted 54,000-seater stadium the announcer rattled through his usual script: team line-ups, league standings, and then, finally, spectator numbers: “Today, there are none.” The hosts won 2-1, but the victory felt hollow. “It is sport without a heart,” wrote Die Zeit, a weekly.
Geisterspiele have a long history in football. The word once referred to games so obscured by winter fog that players were reduced to spectres and the ball had to be imagined. The modern usage arose in the 1980s, when footballing authorities banned supporters of lower-league teams from attending specific matches as a punishment for hooliganism. This year, fans barely had time to get used to the coronavirus-induced Geisterspiele before the German football season, like most in Europe, was suddenly suspended.
With no end in sight to Germany’s restrictions on mass gatherings Christian Seifert, head of the German Football League, says that Geisterspiele might be the only way to conclude the season. Much is at stake: Germany’s is the world’s third most valuable league, and some teams fear that they will go bankrupt if the season is voided. Yet Geisterspiele bring their own problems; during their team’s game against Cologne, hundreds of Mönchengladbach fans defied the club’s appeals and assembled outside, hoping that their cheers would penetrate the empty stadium. In a novel turn of events, the ghost game was haunted by humans.
by Tom Nuttall
- Someone who ignores public health advice (noun)
- Where there are rules, there are those who break them
Even in a pandemic, many of us are prone to judge others and find them wanting: the term “covidiot” describes any and every person behaving stupidly or irresponsibly as the epidemic spreads. Sometime in early March the word was born, and, almost as fast as the virus spread, so did instances of covidiotic behaviour.
The panic-buyers who left supermarket shelves bare of toilet paper and pasta were among the first to earn the title covidiot in Britain, America and elsewhere. Soon, as government lockdowns were put in place, they were followed by those who ignored public health warnings to stay home. These new covidiots held barbecues on beaches, sunbathed in parks and, in one particularly extreme instance, a covidiot wiped his own saliva on goods at a British supermarket. In Florida bull-headed youths on spring break flooded bars and beaches; one shirtless partygoer told news reporters, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” The label has also been used to describe those expounding conspiracy theories about the origins of covid-19, and others warning not to get any eventual coronavirus vaccine as being “from the pit of hell”.
At least the term is a democratic one. The label has been applied from the highest office to the lowest. Like the virus itself, no one is immune.
by Alia Shoaib
你别来我无恙 (nǐbiélái wǒwúyàng)
- If you don’t come, I won’t come to any harm
Catching an old Chinese expression
People in China often use an old pleasantry, 别来无恙 (biéláiwúyàng), to greet each other after a long time apart. The literal translation is “I hope nothing bad has happened since we last said farewell”. In common parlance the phrase essentially means, “I hope you’ve been well”. It’s respectful, but conveys warmth and care too.
But the term’s ancient origins have new bearing in the time of covid-19. According to “I Ching”, the “Book of Changes”, a book on divination and wisdom from the ninth century BC, the final character of the expression, 恙 (yàng), originally referred to a highly contagious bug that caused acute fever and a rash. In its early usage, then, people used this phrase to ask someone if they have become infected since they’d last met – the expression was uttered partly to wish someone well, partly as a warning to stay away if they were contagious.
This meaning had long passed out of the popular consciousness, but as the outbreak of coronavirus spread, the original use made an unexpected comeback. A new phrase, 你别来我无恙 (nǐbiélái wǒwúyàng) means “if you don’t come, I won’t come to any harm”. This reconfiguring of the old idiom was bandied around as the epidemic moved across China, a means to promote social distancing between friends and family. It was a playful nod to history, with a serious message: if you wish me well, stay away.
by Frankie Huang
- 14-day isolation period (noun)
The French almost make isolation sound romantic
The French language helped to give the English-speaking world the term “quarantine”, which derives from quarantaine, meaning a period of 40 days. There are references to its use in French, presumed to be of biblical origin, as early as the 12th century. It was during the plague in the 14th century that Italy used the word quarantena to refer specifically to isolation for reasons of disease. Venetians employed the term to describe the period of time a ship had to wait in port as a sanitary precaution before its crew could disembark. In short, the English language borrowed the word from French and the definition from Italian.
Now the French have dug up another word, quatorzaine, to refer to the 14-day self-isolation period recommended during the covid-19 crisis. “How many pupils are en quatorzaine?” a French radio host asked the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, shortly before he closed down schools in March. “Two doctors en quatorzaine” runs a typical newspaper headline.
The French language lends itself to such linguistic formations: a dizaine, derived from the number dix, means ten of something; a douzaine, derived from douze, means 12. So talking about somebody being en quatorzaine rolls easily off the French tongue. Its anglicised version, on the other hand, would involve referring to somebody being “in quatorzine”. That may appeal for reasons of brevity, but, with time less at a premium these days, it seems unlikely to replace the more long-winded English phrase “in 14-day isolation”.
by Sophie Pedder
- Plague spreader (noun)
What Italians have learned from plague-themed literary classics
As the world adjusts to life under quarantine, many have sought refuge in the pages of plague-themed literature. Sales of Albert Camus’ “The Plague”, about a disease-infested Algerian town in the 1940s, have soared; one publisher has struggled to keep up with orders.
Italians have also re-embraced two national literary classics. Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed”, a classroom staple published in 1827, is set partly in Milan during the plague of 1630. In it, outsiders suspected of deliberately spreading the disease are labelled untori. The allegation was previously directed at Jews accused of propagating the plague in 1348. With the current coronavirus onslaught the word has crept back into use.
The noun untore comes from the verb ungere, meaning “to grease”; unto means “oily”. In “The Betrothed” the untori supposedly sought to infect as many people as possible with their unguento, “ointment”. The word has now resurfaced in reference to Chinese people accused of bringing covid-19 to Italy, and to lambast the way that many Italians were treated by countries with fewer cases. When China sent medical equipment one headline ran “From untore to samaritan”. The usage develops as the outbreak spread. The latest untori are the runners who pound the pavement despite the lockdown , and three Red Cross medics who returned from Lombardy, Italy’s worst-hit region, to Puglia in the south only to be harassed by neighbours.
If Manzoni offers insight into the human instinct to find scapegoats, an earlier classic has some practical advice. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, ten people isolate themselves in a villa outside Florence during the plague of 1348 and recount stories, some sexually explicit, to pass the time. Fiction continues to offer both inspiration and solace
by Alexandra Fattal
- Coronavirus fat (noun)
Some Germans are feeding their fear
German workers ordered to stay at home to help the government flatten one sort of curve have found themselves battling the emergence of another, just above the belt. Home workouts sound great, but the days are long and dull and your latest bout of Hamsterkäufe (panic-buying; lit. “hamster-purchase”) has left the fridge gloriously well-stocked. There’s always another variety of Ritter Sport to try, oder? Anyway, what’s a few kilos between socially distanced friends?
Coronaspeck is the helpful German word for the fat deposited by weeks of stay-at-home grazing. Shoppers in Germany may know Speck as a bacon-like foodstuff, perhaps found on a crisp Flammkuchen or inside hearty Swabian Maultaschen. But its broader meaning corresponds to something like the English “flab”. Babyspeck, for example, is the puppy fat that lingers into adolescence; Winterspeck a memento of excessive indulgence in cold months. Best known is Kummerspeck, or “sorrow-fat”: think a tear-streaked Bridget Jones devouring tubs of ice-cream in the throes of a break-up.
How can Coronaspeck be combatted? Happily, Germany’s lockdown is a notch more tolerant than those of some neighbours. There is no limit on the number of excursions for exercise or other essential purposes. And if the neologism identifies one of the downsides of the corona-crisis, an older noun may inspire some to meet the challenge. Sitzfleisch (lit. “sitting-meat”) can mean one’s bottom, but it is also the ability, much-prized in Germany, to endure or stick something out. The country’s restrictions will not expire until April 19th at the earliest. What better test of a nation’s ability to resist the temptations of the pantry?
by Tom Nuttall
- A new way to refer to covid-19 online (noun)
Queer and black slang creates a coronavirus colloquialism
The prickly sphere of the novel coronavirus has become a familiar sight. Now imagine the same sphere, but badly photoshopped with hoop earrings, Mrs Potatohead lips and fake nails. This is one artistic rendering of “Miss Rona”, a reference to covid-19 online that started, like many American speech fads, among queer and black users on Twitter.
“Gay men always add ‘miss’ to popular things,” says Aaron Leigh, a black, gay podcaster based in Atlanta. “‘Miss Rona’ basically means it has a nasty attitude or it’s a sassy virus.” In black culture, too, adding “Miss” usually means you’re thought of as messy or problematic, says Jonathan Higgins, a queer, black writer. The personification captures the mundane ways in which the virus has disrupted our lives: cancelling our plans, testing our relationships, watching over us as we wash our hands until they’re scaly.
Many American colloquialisms originate in queer or black slang, such as “slay,” “yasss,” and “work” or “fleek” and “bae”, though their origins are rarely acknowledged. This one is spreading even further: teens as far as South-East Asia now have “Miss Rona” as their display names on Twitter. As the pandemic rages, it’s not just the virus that’s spreading.
by Krithika Varagur
- buckwheat (noun)
- panic food
A Latvian staple becomes a symbol of mockery
Few foods emulate what it means to be Latvian as well as buckwheat, a canteen staple from the Soviet era that has been grown in the Baltics for centuries. Often served with kotletes (pork cutlets) or karbonāde (pork schnitzel), the versatile grain featured in hundreds of national folk songs. But, amid the coronavirus crisis, buckwheat has become the subject of ridicule among many Latvians.
When Australia went under lockdown, locals hoarded so much toilet paper that the worst offenders were dubbed “magpies”. In Britain supermarket shelves were stripped of pasta. In Latvia it was buckwheat that the hoarders went for. A Latvian TV channel reported that shops in Riga were “cleaned out” of buckwheat; some supermarkets saw a 99% increase in sales of the grain in the last week of February, compared with the last week of January this year.
Buckwheat quickly became a symbol of mockery in national news headlines and on social media, as an embodiment of panic and fear over covid-19. Comparisons were made between buckwheat and garlic, which is widely used as a natural remedy to treat colds and coughs in Latvia. The phrase “griķi is the new ķiploki (garlic)” was soon coined by Latvian Twitter users, and one Latvian public official suggested that if Latvians lined the perimeter of their country with buckwheat they might even be able to ward off “the new virus”. Some Latvians seem to have enough of the stuff to do so.
by Ričards Umbraško
- To copy homework (verb)
- To steal China’s ingenuity without giving credit
Chinese social-media users think other countries are copying their homework
It used to be that, if you searched 抄作业 “chao zuoye” on Chinese social media, you’d see tales of students plagiarising or cheating on tests: the term means to copy someone’s homework. Chao means to copy, and zuoye means school assignments. But zuoye can also refer to work in a more general sense, which has allowed the phrase to take on a new meaning amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As the virus has spread around the world, the lockdown is slowly being lifted in China and life in some parts of the country appears to be slowly returning to a (new) normal. Many are now watching to see how other countries fight covid-19. “Streets in Malaysia are really copying homework,” says a user on Weibo, a Twitter-like service, alongside a slideshow of public-service posters across Malaysia. The pictures show red banners with public-health slogans printed in white – a stylistic format that Chinese propagandists have used since long before the current pandemic. One Chinese blogger wrote that the National Basketball Association in America was copying the Chinese Basketball Association’s homework, after ESPN reported that the NBA was studying the CBA’s tactics for hosting games during China’s lockdown.
To say another country is copying homework is to be patriotic, but with snark. When another country copies China’s homework, users mean that it’s deploying tactics pioneered by China, without giving credit. This sentiment was particularly prevalent among Chinese Weibo users when Donald Trump labelled covid-19 the “Chinese virus,” drawing attention – and blame – to the global pandemic’s source. As the virus spreads in the West, many commenters on Weibo have called the health crisis facing America an “open-book exam”. As ever, China is keen to be top of the class.
by Noelle Mateer