Why language matters: Linguistic sensitivity and descriptions of the pandemic COVID-19

by Dr. Neeraj Mishra*)

Re-presenting the pandemic COVID-19 to people: what words can do

A major part of what people understand about the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated risks derives directly from its presentation by the social and mass media, and from the words that they have chosen to ‘re-present’ the ongoing crisis. It has given the country and the world a new vocabulary, bringing in words and expressions that were long lost and forgotten due to disuse. Among them are ‘quarantine’, ‘social distancing’, ‘war of the generations’, and ‘invisible enemy’.


Critical and crucial role of (mass) media in India

In my opinion television and social media in India have not only shared but partially constructed the information and risk perception related to the pandemic and its global spread. This ‘constructed nature’ of risk as a practice of manufacturing particular uncertainties may have harmful consequences for the society. The essence of risk is not that it is happening, but that it might be happening. However, news broadcasters and politicians in India appear to have a lack of sensitivity in this respect, using their words often randomly without grasping their impact. Mass media in India have a crucial and critical role to play in terms of social responsibility. For many citizens, tv and radio are the only sources of news. The more news outlets are sensationalizing and mongering fear, as well as spreading half-truths and uncertain opinions, without providing any scientific background information, the more social and psychological unrest is generated. A few examples below will show that words and expressions used by the mass media need to be better selected. Or they should at least be used in such a way that they describe the reality and do not construct a fictional one, therewith creating unwanted panic.

Who invented 'quarantine'?

The word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian/Venetian word quaranta, meaning “forty” and refers to the practice established by European port cities during the plague in the 14th century. Ships arriving at the ports were to be isolated for 40 days before the crew and goods were allowed to disembark. In 1377 the Great Council of Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik) established a 30-day separation period (trentino) for visitors coming from plague-endemic areas. In the following decades, the practice spread to other cities in Europe and was generally extended from 30 to 40 days (quarantino)1. So using the word ‘quarantine’ may still be appropriate in the current context as the term also applies to restricting the movement of people who may have been exposed to an infectious disease. 

Distancing: Social? Physical? Spatial?

But it comes as a surprise to hear the representatives from media outlets and politics repeatedly (mis)using the term ‘social distancing’ when they are actually referring to the process of ‘physical distancing’. A recent contribution in the Harvard Crimson [the daily student newspaper of Harvard University, ed.] has labelled the activity and requested that maintaining ‘physical distance’ should not turn into keeping ‘social distance’2. In fact what is actually meant, and required, is to maintain ‘social closeness’ while maintaining ‘physical distance’. Some recent publications and entries in Wikipedia argue that the term ‘social distancing’ can be used when ‘physical distancing’ is intended, which sounds self-contradictory. If ‘physical distance’ can be used interchangeably as ‘social distance’, then physical sciences can also be called as social sciences! Physics can be called sociology and vice versa. The mistake being made here is not one degree but it is a categorical/qualitative mistake.

Why language is important

Why is the language and re-presentation of such issues important and why should it be done in a responsible manner? An important strategy of getting through any crisis in human life is to stick together and work in close cooperation. COVID-19 is no different in this respect. However, the misuse of terms as social distancing is adding to panic and fear among the people. First of all the fear of contracting the coronavirus, and then, furthermore, the fear of being alone and lonely as a result from physical distancing measures. Usage of words like ‘social distancing’ act at the psychosomatic level and can weaken the mental strength that we derive from being together in a crisis. The semantics of this word is highly misplaced, and conveys exactly the opposite of what it means to say.

A brief review of the concept of ‘social distance’ has been provided below to show how a term loaded with meaning and relevance, is being misused so lightly and as a self-evident truth. Regarding the seriousness of the crisis facing the world, we should make sure to use more appropriate and correct terms describing the actual situation. Instead of using words that actively alienate people from their loved ones at a much deeper psychological level.

Historical background of the concept of ‘social distance’

The first appearance of the concept of ‘social distance’ can be traced back to the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. In his Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1740, Hume suggested that everyone considers the welfare of other persons but does not give it as much weight as his or her own. The weight may be very high when the other person is a member of one’s family, but diminishes with respect to others less close, and may become very small when one is considering the welfare of persons who belong to very different cultures. Hume had the notion in mind that modern sociologists call ‘social distance’. In effect he argued that while one does not set the welfare of others at naught, one discounts it increasingly as their ‘social distance’ becomes greater. He drew a parallel between social distance discounting and Newton’s law of gravitational attraction. He even suggested that this psychological tendency conformed to Newton’s specific formula, which expresses the force between two masses as inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them (See, Scott Gordon, 1991: 118). Like the relevance of physical distance in natural sciences, psychological distance from others has become relevant in social sciences.

In most cases during human history the concept of ‘social distance’ has had a negative connotation and was used to describe the gaps existing between different groups and classes of people. For e.g. there existed ‘social distance’ between the higher and lower caste people in ancient India, due to which there could be no intermarriage or dining together between these groups. Like Hume, many modern authors see it as a measure of closeness and intimacy between individuals and/or groups, i.e. social distance is more or less identical to affective distance. Emory Bogardus, writing in the 1940s (Bogardus, 1941: 106), even created an affective ‘social distance scale’ to measure the degree of sympathy that members of a group feel for another group. Bogardus (1947: 306) himself maintains that ‘in social distance studies, the center of attention is on the feeling reactions of persons towards other persons and toward groups of people’. However, it is obvious that the Coronavirus and the prevention of its spread have nothing to do with how we feel about our neighbors, as only a physical distance is needed.

Other sociologists such as Simmel subscribe to the idea of normative social distance, which can be seen as a set of collectively recognized norms about membership status in a group. These norms differentiate “us” from “them” - either through clear-cut divisions or in a gradual form-and specify what kind of relations with what kind of people are ‘acceptable’ (Karakayali, 2009: 541).

A third dimension of social distance refers to the frequency with which two groups interact, whereas a fourth one can be called ‘cultural and habitual distance’. The latter was developed by Pierre Bourdieu (1990), who proposed that social groups and classes can be mapped on a multidimensional social space on the basis of the types and volume of capital they possess.

Besides these different dimensions mentioned above, there also exist interaction and interrelations between these dimensions.

The German scholar Dr. Regula Venske expressed this point in a recent interview in which she said that we must choose our words wisely and responsibly, especially during times of crisis. She specifically appealed to the media representatives, clarifying that the term ‘social distance’ is very misleading and could send a completely wrong signal. If we think of facebook or twitter as social platforms, we do not ask people to disconnect from them, but our words are saying precisely that. Hence, the more appropriate term should be ‘physical’ or ‘spatial’ distance, she argued. The importance of using the right vocabulary should not be underestimated as language shapes our thinking and behavior. Terms such as ‘social distancing’ have a psychological impact on human minds implying that each one of us is alone in this crisis and we have to fend for ourselves, excluding all societal support that is available and crucial, which is neither true nor essential.

War of generations

The term ‘war of the generations’, coined in Spain to describe the pandemic, is not appropriate either, as many young people have died from coronavirus too. Such terminologies only divide the society further and that is problematic, noted Dr. Venske.

Physical distancing

The protection against COVID-19 requires physical distancing and social/psychological closeness so that the loneliness and mental turbulence caused either by contracting the virus, or living in lockdown and confinement, can be overcome. Dr. Jeff Kwong, an infectious disease specialist and Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto noted that: “…we should be using the term ‘physical distancing’, because it’s really about being physically apart, and socially we need to stick together- but just in a virtual way.” The WHO at a recent meeting in March, 2020 also felt the need to rectify this error and switch to the right term for ‘social’ distancing i.e. ‘spatial’ distancing.

Get together in the post Covid-19 world!

A brutalization of language can be observed not only on television but also on social network sites. Hatred and agitation against people of a particular community or a nation, based on some very flimsy and hurriedly juxtaposed conspiracy theories, is leading to a division of societies and even the world community. However, in such times of crisis, we need both national and international cooperation to get to the other side - to the post COVID-19 world. There hasn’t been an instance in the last 100 years of human history when the expression “together we stand, divided we fall” could have been more meaningful and reverberate the ‘Zeitgeist’ more as it is right now!

*) The author is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology, School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Indore, India, and a ZEF alumnus.


Photo credits:
Photo 1: Source: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP via Getty Images (wine shop) 
Photo 2: Sourc: -PIB, Govenment of India (people walking in squares) 



1) (2013). Etymologia: Quarantine. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 19(2), 263. https://dx.doi.org/10.3201/eid1902.et1902.

2) Lee, Allison. G. 31 March 2020. Social Distance, Social Distance, Social Distance!
(Available at: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/3/31/editorial-practice-social-distancing/)