Want to feel old? COVID slang is now a linguistic phenomenon that has moved into its second — possibly even third — era.
Already, phrases like “quarantini” and “unprecedented times” are starting to feel like they came from a different time, and in a way, it’s because they did. A good deal of the COVID slang that burst into our everyday vernacular to describe the new realities we were facing in 2020 feel like a relic from that specific moment in history.
Now, as we near the end of 2021, it no longer feels as relevant to use words like “quarantine” — depending on where you live and the kinds of policies that were enacted there, it’s possible that even the word “lockdown” is an exaggeration. “Nature is healing” is still kind of funny to say if you’re being ironic, but we are most definitely living in precedented times at this point. By now, the pandemic has been referred to as a “panini,” a “panoramic,” and a “pandemi moore,” and it’s unclear how many variations on this meme are still to come. One thing that is abundantly clear is that the more grim reality gets, the funnier the internet is.
We’ve also had front row seats to the truism that at no time does language become more malleable than at times of great technological or social change. Thanks to its compound word structure, the German language probably outdid the rest of the world by inventing 1,200 new words related to the pandemic.
What has most likely been universal throughout all languages is that everyday laypeople have had to familiarize themselves with medical terms and acronyms, like PCR and N95. A big part of the 2021 landscape has also been the emergence of vaccines, a lot of new concepts that are related to the vaccines, and all the new variants that we have to worry about now.
This is not a happy roundup, but it’s a roundup that’s unfortunately relevant and timely. Here’s a shortlist of the 2021 COVID slang that defined this past year.
The Best/Worst COVID Slang From 2021
delta, gamma, lambda…etc.?
We’ve had the alpha, beta and delta variants sprout up this year — even gamma, lambda, and as of barely a week ago, omicron — and we’re already talking about the nomenclature we’ll use when we exhaust the Greek alphabet. To be fair, it’s more memorable than “B.1.1.7,” and easier to remember which variant is which, so this is probably an example of language doing what it’s supposed to do. Let’s just hope they don’t pivot to naming virus strains after zodiac signs in 2022.
Did you get the jab? A large part of what distinguishes 2021 COVID slang from 2020 COVID slang is that we have vaccines now (and all the things that come with vaccines, like passports and bitter social divides and earnest attempts to educate people on what mRNA actually is).
A lot of people have mixed feelings about the word “jab,” though, and that’s probably fitting for a word we’re using to describe getting vaccinated in today’s sociopolitical climate. Australia’s ABC News says the word “jab” has been the subject of more complaints than any other thing this past year — some people find it too violent-sounding, especially those who are already needle-phobic. Other people think it just doesn’t sound Australian.
hot vax summer
see also: shot girl summer; vaxed and waxed
In 2019, Megan Thee Stallion launched the words “hot girl summer” into the ether, and we’ve never turned back — even (and in spite of) the fact that we’ve now had more COVID summers than non-COVID summers since this phrase has been around.
Then, this year, we declared it a Hot Vax Summer. In countries that were fortunate enough to have vaccine distribution ramp up in the spring, the sort of joking, sort of serious hype was that Summer 2021 was un-canceled.
The expectation: a bacchanalian midsummer night’s dream of all-night debauchery, promiscuity, and first dates that wouldn’t have to take place at a distance of at least 6 feet. The reality: setting your expectations unrealistically high is always a recipe for disappointment, and it turned out the pandemic wasn’t magically over for people as soon as they got their shots.
Still, “hot vax summer” and “vaxed and waxed” have probably been the most memorable relics of the sexually pent-up zeitgeist of this past year.
Pfizer Papi, Moderna Mami
In the United States, the two most popular vaccines available were the Pfizer and the Moderna shot. It didn’t take long for people to start playfully identifying with their brand of choice (or, in a lot of cases, whatever brand they were able to get). Are you a Pfizer Papi, looking for your Moderna Mami?
The words “papi” and “mami” come from certain regional varieties of Latin American Spanish, and are used as terms of endearment for family and loved ones and/or flirtation.
On the other end of the spectrum, a huge portion of the world was left behind as many richer nations began their vaccine rollouts in 2021. At press time, roughly 55 percent of the world’s population has received at least one dose, and as of July, it’s speculated that the poorest nations might not receive vaccines until 2023 — a whole two years after the first doses became available. The term “vaccine apartheid” has become a catchphrase used to describe the cumulative effects of the greed, inequality and lack of international cooperation that has led to these disparities.
In 2020, the words “breakthrough case” probably wouldn’t have made much sense. But when people started to get their shots, we soon learned in real-time what it meant for a vaccine to have an efficacy rate — that a small margin of people, though fully vaccinated, could still get sick with COVID. The word “breakthrough,” in this new medical context, was actually one of the new words Merriam-Webster added to the dictionary in 2021.
long COVID, long-hauler
“Long COVID” was another word Merriam-Webster deemed dictionary worthy this year. Long COVID refers to an unusually extended period of having COVID-related symptoms, some of which persist for months — or even indefinitely.
The people suffering from long COVID have started referring to themselves as “long-haulers,” a word that aptly characterizes the heavy burden many people are carrying as they grapple with their health, with the uncertainty of not knowing what comes next, and with the possibility of having permanent disabilities.
2020: omg we’re entering hell
2021: ok so how do we make hell cozy
— julia shiplett (@juliashiplett) August 12, 2021
see also: new normal
In 2020, we entered hell. In 2021, we tried to make hell cozy, maybe? More and more, the phrase “Before Times,” used to refer to the reality we lived in pre-2020, has signaled to us subconsciously that our brains are beginning to normalize what was previously unthinkable.
No, Menty B. is not the forgotten Spice Girl you didn’t know about. Leave it to Australia to put a cheeky twist on going completely out of your mind. Down in Oz, “menty-b” has become shorthand for “mental breakdown,” and it’s made it to Macquarie Dictionary’s 2021 Word of the Year shortlist.