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This is an excerpt from Quibbles & Bits, the BuzzFeed News copydesk's newsletter. Sign up below to nerd out about language and style with us once a month!
Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we’re in the midst of a surreal, unprecedented moment in history. And it’s...really testing the limits of our language.
The other week (or maybe a month or three years ago, who can say), the word amid (AMID! WHICH IS BARELY A WORD AT ALL) was trending on Twitter for, frankly, an incredibly valid reason: It seems NO ONE can write a headline without it these days.
We are taking a look at some other terms we won’t stop hearing for the foreseeable future. (BTW, the term is hunker down...not bunker down!)
stay at home/safer at home vs. shelter in place vs. lockdown: We’ve heard a variety of terms from state, city, and county governments in the last few weeks — everything from Indiana’s governor asking residents to “hunker down” to the order in six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area to “shelter in place.” These mandates carry varying degrees of alarm and enforcement, even if they effectively all mean the same thing.
At the time we’re sending this newsletter, 38 states are urging their residents to stay home.
The “shelter in place” directive, which currently applies to several regions across the US, demands that people only leave their homes for the most essential needs. The term itself is conventionally used for an active shooter situation. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, who opted to use the words safer at home in issuing a new guidance to residents, made a clear semantic assertion: “This is not ‘shelter in place’ like a school shooting; this is ‘stay at home’ because you’re safer at home,” he said. The same evening, Gov. Gavin Newsom also ordered Californians to “stay at home.”
The strictest measure of these, a lockdown, has been taken in countries like Italy, France, the UK, and India. Under this restriction, no one is allowed to leave their home for nonessential reasons. The broadcasting and reprimanding have also taken different forms: In France, people who leave home for an essential trip are required to complete and carry a permission slip from the government. In Punjab, India, it means a public shaming. In the UK, the BBC is playing this clip from workplace sitcom The Thick of It to remind everyone.
Style tip: to shelter in place (v.), shelter-in-place order (adj.), to stay at home (v.), stay-at-home or safer-at-home order (adj.)
quarantine vs. isolation: As many cities and states have recommended that all residents stay at home as much as possible, the use of the words quarantine and isolation has skyrocketed. The technical difference between the terms has to do with whether you’re sick or you just might have been exposed — isolation refers to an ill person who’s contagious staying separated from healthy people, while quarantine is used when people who are currently well but may have been exposed to a contagious disease are kept away from others to see if they become ill. However, everyone online has been using the terms somewhat interchangeably, and we think that’s OK as long as it’s clear in context.
Style tip: Like all words with the self- prefix, hyphenate self-isolate and self-quarantine.
essential vs. nonessential: Since mid-March, the closures of myriad nonessential businesses have led to a record number of people filing for unemployment nationwide. The rationale for determining which term applies: Is this business a functioning cog in the machinery of society, or would its staying open exacerbate the public health crisis?
The enforcement varies from state to state, as does declaring which businesses are deemed essential (like grocery stores, bike repair shops, pharmacies, and gas stations) versus nonessential (movie theaters, escape rooms, gyms, and restaurants); New York initially didn’t classify liquor stores among the former category, but later added them.
Style tip: nonessential (no hyphen)
outbreak vs. epidemic vs. pandemic: All these words can be used to describe the current public health crisis, but several nuances guide their use: When we’re talking about the sudden spread of something in a specific area or community, we’ll often say outbreak. An epidemic is specifically an outbreak of a disease that spreads quickly. When the coronavirus was mostly confined to China, the World Health Organization hesitated to label it a pandemic (it finally did on March 11), which actually just means an epidemic that occurs over a wide geographic area (not even necessarily global). So a pandemic is simply a type of epidemic.
Style tip: Use pandemic when talking in global terms and say outbreak or epidemic when talking about individual countries.
Rent forgiveness vs. rent freeze vs. rent/eviction moratorium: You might see these terms being used interchangeably, but the differences are huge. And when 40% of New Yorkers may not be able to pay rent this month, understanding these terms is imperative.
In a rent freeze, there won’t be an increase, but the tenant still has to pay. Rent forgiveness means the tenant’s obligation to pay rent is waived for a certain amount of time.
During a rent moratorium, the landlord cannot demand rent from a tenant and the tenant will not owe it after the moratorium is over. A rent holiday is virtually the same, but it could also be used when the tenant owes a temporarily reduced rent.
Laws vary during an eviction moratorium, which many US cities have enacted — but generally speaking, the courts aren’t hearing eviction proceedings and the tenant likely has to pay back rent at a date decided by the city or state. (Thanks to the LA Tenants Union and the Housing Rights Center for helping clear these up for us.)
Style tip: rent strike (n.), rent-strike (v.)
Questions From Readers
Sandra R. asked why we use the article the in front of coronavirus.
We use the article the because when we talk about the current pandemic, we are referring to a specific strain of coronavirus. The the is indicating that this is a definitive coronavirus we are referencing (i.e., the novel coronavirus), not the whole family of coronaviruses.
We don't use the when talking about COVID-19 because that's the specific disease's name. And we wouldn't use the in front of SARS-CoV-2, which is the name of the new strain of the coronavirus, either.
Have any burning style-related questions? Drop us a line at email@example.com.
What’s the Word?
ungepatchke (adj.) (uhn-ga-pahtch-keh)
A Yiddish word that has no direct translation in English, ungepatchke — also spelled ungapatchka, ongepatchka, among other variations — means something that is overly decorated, ostentatious, and with too many elements to it. It’s tacky, showy, and off-putting. It’s gilding the lily; it’s putting a hat on a hat. Think of the SNL “Taco Town” sketch or, for a real-life example, the Taco Bell taco with a Cool Ranch Doritos shell. There are also some non-taco examples: this Princess Leia throw pillow, a neighbor's Christmas display, a grandmother’s candy dish.
Used in a sentence: These fast-food restaurants are trying too hard; the chicken sandwich with donuts in place of the buns is fine in the abstract, but in reality it’s ungepatchke.
3 Things We’ve Enjoyed Over the Last Few Weeks
Vox made a glossary of coronavirus terms.
This AP story on language related to the pandemic mentions a young person calling the coronavirus “The Ronies.”
Merriam-Webster’s Twitter thread of “beautiful, obscure, and often quite useless words.” <3