How the coronavirus is changing the way we think
Updated: Mar 12, 2020
LIKE VIRUSES, WORDS MUTATE. I’m not talking about their appearance here – though the spelling of some words has changed over time, as a flick through any of Shakespeare’s plays shows. I’m talking about the meaning of words.
Take egregious. Today, you could say that someone or something that’s really bad is egregious. But this hasn’t always been the case. Originally, it meant the complete opposite. Before it mutated – in the mid-16th century – you could have said that someone or something that was really good was egregious (in Latin, ‘standing out from the flock’].
It’s good to be bad
How did this happen? While it may sound a bit crazy, the change probably came about because of people using the word ironically. As in: “Oh yeah, he’s really egregious, isn’t he?” to insinuate that someone who was really bad was really good. Saying and hearing this often enough in the 16th century would have helped its meaning to mutate.
We can see this kind of thing happening today. Take the word sick. Sick, to older people, relates to illness. They may say that society is sick (when talking about its problems). They may even say that someone’s bad behaviour makes them sick.
Messi is totally sick
Younger people are generally aware of these denotations, not least because they take time off school or college when they’re sick. But this doesn’t stop them also using it for something that’s really good. For example, a young football fan may say that the Barcelona player Lionel Messi is totally sick. Or that his skills are sick, meaning he or his skills are superb (Messi is regarded by many as the best player in the world).
Why do some reject the word reject?
The mutation of refute is more subtle than those words whose meaning has totally flipped. For example, almost every day, a news article will tell us that a certain politician refutes claims made by a member of the opposition. “X says global warming is harming trade, but Y refutes his claim.”
The dictionary definition of refute is to disprove. Without evidence, nothing is disproved. It’s rejected; and the word reject would be more accurate in the example sentence above.
Yet, if enough people use it incorrectly, then refute is likely to come to have the same meaning as reject. It’s probably even more likely to happen because journalists use it often and they have more influence on language than most people.
Which brings us on to the coronavirus. The virus has made the word pandemic almost as common as a cold (1). Like many of the words we use, pandemic has Greek roots: pan means all and -demic comes from demos, meaning people (hence words like democracy). So, ancient Grecians would have thought of a pandemic as something that affects all people.
As I write, around 81,000 people have been affected by the coronavirus, according to Live Science. From a global population of around seven billion, that’s around 0.0010384615384615384 per cent. You can be fairly certain that those who created the word to describe all people would not consider those percentage figures as pandemic proportions.
How the pandemic could spread
Not that we’re quite ready to describe coronavirus as a pandemic. At least not as I write we aren’t. But this description does appear imminent.
When, or if, it becomes a pandemic is of course debatable. But it seems likely that it would be described more readily as a pandemic today than it would have in ancient Greece. This is because our definition of the word appears to be mutating. And, as with the virus, people are the cause of the mutation.
What words can you think of that are currently mutating? Drop me a message in the comments section below with your sick words.
1). The World Health Organisation describes a pandemic as the worldwide spread of a disease.