Charles Gutjahr

Melbourne, Australia

Judging pandemic words

12 Jul 2020 — a 1 minute read on COVID-19 Words

For a while I was posting a short opinion online each weekend, more for my benefit than yours. I find writing down my thoughts a useful bit of introspection. It is a chance to evaluate whether my instinctive reaction to an issue is right, whether I would be comfortable writing it down and standing by those words.

I had stopped in this pandemic because I don't feel like I can contribute. I don't have the scientific or epidemiological expertise that is necessary to provide valid opinions on COVID-19 — and honestly I reckon most opinions I see are junk because they too lack that expertise.

Maybe I can't opine on how to deal with the virus itself, but I reckon the language we use to describe it is fair game. Some words that we use every day I had never heard of a few months ago. Why do we use those words and not other ones?

So now Melbourne is in lockdown (ooh! there's a word!) for six weeks, let's see if I can keep up six weeks of judging pandemic words.

Week 1: Social distancing

How did we end up with the term 'social distancing' when it means distancing yourself physically from other people, not distancing yourself socially from them? I reckon we ended up with the wrong term here. It should have been 'physical distancing'.

'Physical distancing' has a natural meaning: tell me to physically distance and I can guess what you mean. But before this pandemic 'social distancing' would have sounded more like 'social isolation' or 'social withdrawal' to me; not what is meant by the term, and indeed exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. This pandemic is hard on our mental health and we need to keep up that social contact even when we are physically distant.

I'm glad to see that the Victorian and Australian governments seem to have switched to saying physical distancing now. I have too.