SUE BUTLER. COVID-19 language outbreak

A new environment requires us to produce new names so that we can identify its elements and come to terms with it.  Every settler in a strange terrain goes through the process of naming plants, animals and geographical features.  The social landscape altered by a pandemic required some linguistic landmarks. 

COVID-19 produced a small explosion of lexical items associated with it. Sometimes the names were imposed by some administrative body, sometimes they developed organically from the community. Sometimes they were formal, sometimes informal.

To begin with we needed a name for the disease.  Coronavirus, though popular, was not sufficiently specific.  There is an international committee dealing with the taxonomy of viruses but they came to the task slowly. Previous epidemics such as those caused by Ebola and SARS and MERS had resulted in unfortunate stigmatisation of locations associated with the disease. In the end the committee settled on COVID-19 for the disease and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) for the virus. In the meantime, in the absence of any official name, people had come up with terms like Chinese disease (Trump’s preferred term), Wuhan flu or Wu Flu.

We learnt to self-isolate and practise social distancing.  The game then was to find ways of connecting with others while maintaining our distance. Some people took to having dinner in the driveway.  Australia introduced the bin outing to the world. For this iso-occasion you dressed up in costume in order to take the garbage bins out, taking photos of the event and posting them online.

In the early days at least we worried about super spreaders, and then super spreader events, such as football matches, that were particularly successful in spreading the virus. We were amazed by the panic buying of toilet rolls and played briefly with the term hamsterkauf, the German word for panic buying.  It breaks down into hamster meaning ‘hoarding’ (from the practice of the hamster animal of stuffing surplus food into pouches in its cheeks), and kauf  to buy.

There was strong support for the word Covidiot which the Urban Dictionary put up on its database with the meanings (a)  Someone who ignores the warnings regarding public health or safety.  (b) A person who hoards goods, denying them from their neighbours.

Many of us were tempted to apply the word to the Minister for Government Services who claimed that hackers had arranged for many people to swamp the Centrelink database. The next day he agreed that in fact the database crash was caused by the lack of preparedness of MyGov for the predictable surge in applications. ‘My bad’ said the minister. ‘Covidiot’ said everyone else.

We longed to flatten the curve. This related to the graph of the spread of the disease, a bell curve rising steeply to a peak if left to its own devices. We wanted to slow the rate of infection and bring that peak down so that it represented patients in numbers that would not overwhelm the health system. There was a touch of black humour in the secondary meaning ‘to stay at home and do nothing’.

We had corona truthers who told us that there was no pandemic, just a plot by the government to take away all our civil liberties.   Conspiracy theorists suggested that (a) the virus had been developed by the Chinese in labs in Wuhan either as a weapon against their own people or the people of Hong Kong or the US  (b) the virus had been developed to wipe out the Democrats  (c) the virus had been developed to bring down Donald Trump.  There were also many suggested cures and preventive measures, but the best was offered by the leader of Belarus who said that the citizens should drink vodka, have saunas, and work hard. There was so much of this fake news and fake analysis that the WHO warned that the infodemic might be as bad as the pandemic.  Infobesity was also on the rise, that is, the obsessive and excessive consumption of news relating to the pandemic.

We entered the world of the travel bubble, a protected area with a low rate of coronavirus infection within which people could travel around freely. The bubble suggested for us was Australia and New Zealand, but then various Pacific countries wanted to bubble in as well.

We were told that the way forward was through economic hibernation.  We put the economy to sleep in a way in which economic relationships, as between employer and employee, were not broken but frozen. The deep sleep was supported by government subsidy. This was done in the hope that when the economy emerged, growling and hungry, from this imposed dormancy, it would instantly reassert itself, as powerful as ever.  The government has since changed its imagery, adopting the notion of the ICU patient who needs to leave the hospital and get off all medication in order to regain health.

Through all this iso-explosion of vocabulary we have had a running commentary from Trump, in particular his attempts to make China the scapegoat for America’s ills. The Chinese response has been unusually terse causing some commentators to note a change in style which they have dubbed Wolf Warrior diplomacyWolf Warrior was a successful Chinese action movie released in 2015, which featured heroes from the Chinese special operations forces. It was followed in 2017 by an even bigger success, Wolf Warrior II. To outsiders the films and the response to them seem overly nationalistic. Of course there have been an endless stream of such movies in America, but that is all okay.

I’m not sure that having the words to describe our new situation has made anything any better.  But, as everyone agreed, clear communications were very necessary and finding the right word did perhaps give some sense of control. Certainly some black humour, as illustrated by boomer remover, may have helped us to cope.


Susan Butler AO was The Editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, Australia’s national dictionary, and, as Editor, was largely responsible for the selection and writing of new words. Susan retired as Editor at the end of 2017.
She has written the Dinkum Dictionary, published in its third edition in 2009. In 2014 she wrote The Aitch Factor, a commentary on usage matters in Australian English. She published an e-book called New Words Changes in Australian English in early 2020 and has another book on language matters coming out in October 2020.

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6 Responses to SUE BUTLER. COVID-19 language outbreak

  1. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    Wonderful essay, thank you. It’s interesting how metaphors can affect our behaviours.

  2. Avatar Richard England says:

    I think it most useful to classify language utterances according to the answer to the question, “Cui bono?”: whether the answer is the listener or the utterer. When it is the listener, the utterance is usually classified as education, or science. When the answer to “Cui bono?” is the utterrer or his third-party controller (e. g his patron or client), the utterance is usually classified as advocacy. The precise terms that have originated during the pandemic are mostly scientific. The hate speech can be classified with advocacy, usually by or for those determined to profit from the hate. I think this classification has far-reaching moral consequences.

  3. Avatar Sam Lee says:

    Hi Sue, great article drawing together what’s been a tumultuous year of new words and concepts. Apologies about going a little offtrack but I want to say something about the “Chinese virus” term that I haven’t seen clearly said elsewhere:

    As we all know, words have power, especially words that roll off the tongue and capture the zeitgeist. Like “Yellow Peril”, if “Chinese virus” were allowed unchallenged into the lexicon it can easily become yet another mental shortcut for racist conscious and subconscious responses to all that’s wrong with the world at the moment.

    When people (especially in the US and France and especially people who were not PRC nationals) started the movement and hashtag “#imnotavirus” and posted pictures of themselves with the words “I am not a virus”, the interpretation I’ve seen from the few media outlets that reported it was that these Chinese persons were voicing concerns about being ostracised by race. But that wasn’t my interpretation of the movement and it certainly wasn’t my shock and fear when I first read that Donald Trump was tweeting those words.

    My fear, and what the movement was actually challenging in my opinion, was the insinuation (and I strongly believe this is a deliberate and insidious juxtaposition of these words, not an unfortunate ignorant election slogan) that the Chinese ethnicity is a virus. This, for those who haven’t been exposed to the nasty underbelly of white supremacism, is the other side of the “white genocide” coin, the holy grail for the movement to manufacture the idea of a woke White Civilisation that is under siege from infiltrators and interracial traitors in a Clash of Civilisations.

    The equating of Chineseness to a virus, in the middle of a pandemic, would be exaggerated by every warning and negative consequence of the racially-indiscriminate SARS-CoV-2, with plausible deniability. This deliberate choice of words (not “Wuhan virus”, which was a useful designation for “SARS-CoV-2” before it was formally named) follows the same “I am not touching you” defence / tactic that characterises so many of the anti-Chinese (ostensibly anti-China but essentially domestically targeted rather than internationally useful) campaigns – the foreign influence register that doesn’t register non-Chinese influence, the foreign donation policies that don’t apply to non-Chinese donors and lobbyists, the immigration bans that don’t apply to non-Chinese people (harking back to the White Australia immigration tests).

    The “Chinese virus” phrase invokes calls to vaccinate, to prevent the spread, and to find a cure for this silent deadly disease (of Chineseness) which in practical terms, means stripping from ethnically Chinese Australians, by ostracisation and by racial-discriminate application and enforcement of laws (George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement say hi), our right to be treated as equal citizens of this country and an equal member of this society. Social permission (and even advocacy) to racially discriminate is cognate with institutional racism (as an aside, I note the ABC still hasn’t worked out what “institutional racism” is, and is still referring to it as “institutionalised [sic] racism” … makes one wonder if for the ABC racism is deranged or scheduled away with the asylum seekers out-of-sight and out-of-mind).

    When you (the reader of my comment) read a comment and think, “is this person a Chinese agent?”, and when you see a Chinese-looking person buying baby formula and want to go defend (white) Australian moms from Chinese (Australian) moms, you should wonder at the insidiousness and creepiness of the brainwashing that makes this White Civilisation agenda seem so reasonable to you (trying very hard to avoid being slapped by Godwin’s Law here … although Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t as afraid of exposing the connection ), and that to you Donald Trump’s use of the “Chinese virus” is justifiable, being a common traditional designation of an unknown virus, like the “Spanish flu”, not at all in any way put together with racist intent, despite the same racist intent being a consistent uninterrupted theme throughout Donald Trump’s presidential career and throughout his pre-POTUS public life as well.

    I am not a virus. #Iamnotavirus. I am just an Australian.

    • Avatar Hans Rijsdijk says:

      Sam, I couldn’t agree more with your comment.
      However, I also wonder whether we don’t take too much notice of all this bigotry and racism. Would it not be better if we just ignored that kind of bullshit if it is only verbal. Often the only reason for such comments is to attract the media’s attention. The less publicity of this stuff the less effect it has.
      On the other hand of course, I am not Chinese (or Aboriginal, or Indian) and thus I have no personal experience of such behaviour.

      • Avatar Sam Lee says:

        Hi Hans,

        I don’t think this is the same as not giving hate speech a platform – I believe the demonisation of all things Chinese will continue to proliferate in my lifetime whether I highlight it by speaking out against it or not, driven by both spy agencies who believe Yellow Peril messaging will contain the PRC internationally and Neo-Nazis who believe that the Chinese along with other identifiable minorities (Jews, Blacks, Muslims, Indigenous peoples) have taken over / are stealing lands belonging to the White people.

        What you suggest is a kind of self-censorship, and it’s a kind of self-censorship which would not even be considered if Donald Trump had said, “The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Jewish Virus [or “Black Virus”, instead of “Chinese Virus”]. We will be stronger than ever before!”

        It may help you understand how deeply this cuts and the threat and fear we feel if you consider the fact that the people who tweeted #iamnotavirus and who posted “I am not a virus” are people who are usually labelled a ‘model minority’ and are usually not seen or heard (hence the “silent infiltration” accusation when we are suddenly forced to become visible despite happily going about our own business as an equal citizen before all this).

        The Chinese culture values keeping the peace (translated with broken English and jarring to the ear, to “harmonious society” by the Western media), treasures privacy, modesty, and live and let live (which with racism and demonisation of the Chinese becomes the “always keep to themselves, so secretive” complaint) and respects those charged with the responsibility of and credit for looking after us, whether those persons are in the ‘family’ (respecting one’s elders and teachers) or in the society (respecting authority). It takes a lot for us to speak out and take a stand. When I read the Chinese-French protesting against the inaction and indifference shown by French police and authorities to violence and police brutality targeting the Chinese-French what shocked me was the fact that they were protesting not the inaction, indifference, racist attacks or police brutality (which are common).

        I am glad the phrase “Chinese virus” was challenged early on, heading off that particular anti-Chinese campaign and redirecting it to attacking the PRC government and Xi Jinping (even though that subsequent anti-PRC campaign was just as racist and filled with manipulation). I hope we will all speak up when (not if) the next anti-Chinese campaign comes along, instead of the same deafening silence that is shown up in such rude contrast by the international protest in solidarity for the rights of Black Americans to be treated as any other citizen of our respective countries.

        (Strong apologies to Sue for this sidetracking of her post, which I enjoyed very much in reading and from which I added to my vocabulary the wonderfully graphic new word of hamsterkauf).

        • Avatar Sue Butler says:

          No need to apologise Sam. I agree that words can be used as weapons. Why else did Trump insist on using Chinese virus. And that sometimes these expressions can be picked up and run in the community in a way that normalises racism. I’m glad you liked hamsterkauf.

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