COVID-19 – Besides the terrible effects of COVID-19 in our everyday life as a society, there is also a less noticeable impact, the one on popular perceptions, cultural concepts, and language usage. When I was teaching a Humanities course in college and went over Auguste Compte’s philosophical theory of positivism, my students tended to associate it with the more popular usage of the word: something good. To be positive was understood as having what we can call an optimistic, even cheerful view of events and life in general. Although the medical term was also known—the verification through some testing procedure that an infection or disease is present—it was the more generally-used meaning that first came to mind.
The current situation, with daily accounts of increasing numbers of ‘positive’ cases of COVID-19 in Canada and Quebec, has now popularized the medical meaning. In fact, the term ‘positive’ originally had nothing to do with being good. It derives from the Latin ‘posit’ a form of the verb ‘ponere’ which means to place or to put. This meaning, in turn, came to involve the notion of proof. Comte’s theory in the 19th century relied on the principle that only statements that can be empirically proven—i.e. positive—should be regarded as true. A strong believer in the power of science, Comte thought that its method should also be extended to the study of social issues—he was the founder of sociology, which he conceived as a comprehensive understanding of all things related to society.
Social distancing is another concept that has entered our vocabulary due to the pandemic. It has also created controversy: some people prefer ‘physical distancing’ since the most commonly used, ‘social distancing,’ might have some anti-social connotations. For safety reasons, keeping a physical distance from each other is a good thing. However, for emotional comfort, we should still be socially close, the argument goes. (A minor semantic issue in my view. Besides, don’t you think that social distance could be an excellent pretext to keep those we would like that they get lost, far from us?)
Some terms have long been around with a primary medical meaning, take ‘virus’ for instance. However, in the era of computers and the Internet, for many people ‘virus,’ as a term adopted by the information technology meaning a malevolent intruder in our networks and devices, had gained more presence in recent years than the medical one. Derived from this adapted concept is the term ‘viral’ in reference to a picture, a video, a meme or any other online message that spreads quickly reaching wide circulation through the social networks.
Quarantine, a well-known medical term, has also become familiar these days. It was occasionally used when astronauts came back from their trips to the Moon. Then, they were kept in isolation, just in case that they could have brought harmful microscopic lunar species to our planet. The word comes from Latin ‘quadraginta’ via the Venetian brand of medieval Italian ‘quarantena’ meaning forty. Although now most quarantine periods have been shortened to fourteen days, the original quarantine observed in medieval times lasted forty days, hence its name.
Since language is not neutral, it may carry unpleasant or even disturbing connotations. There are cases where those who introduced or promoted a particular term, may try to moderate its offending implications. ‘Herd immunity’ is a good example, so much that in other languages, it has been translated into more acceptable forms such as ‘collective’ or ‘community immunity.’ (Attempts to do that in English have been made as well. However, the original term is already entrenched with all its brutal implications: most people should get infected so in the end, the virus would disappear—many more deaths being just a side effect of this policy).
Under new cultural parameters set by COVID-19, then, we are learning new ways of greeting others, telling people to keep social (or physical) distance, and applying names to the various ways of fighting a virus for which—unlike its computer counterparts—no anti-virus is available.
Feature image: Ste. Catherine Street has enlarged its sidewalks to accommodate social distancing (a.k.a. physical distancing)