The world races ahead, upending our assumptions and reminding us that the idea of "normal" is shaky and shifting.
As is widely noted, 2020 is only half over, and no one knows if that’s good or bad news. All we know is that it’s already been a rough, rough ride.
We often lack good language for new realities, so we slap on old words and phrases that don’t quite fit. Good enough, says the world in a hurry, that’ll have to do.
Word lovers tsk and scold, though it does no good. Still, let’s allow that language has taken a beating in 2020.
We – and I mean We the People as well as the subset called the news media – seem to have agreed on the shorthand "lockdown" for the several weeks of stay-at-home orders we endured this spring. That label cannot be changed at this point, but could we at least acknowledge that none of us outside a nursing home experienced any such thing.
Ask, oh I don’t know, the people of China. The authoritarian government there imposed the real thing: Do not leave your home unless you have an approved reason and our permission. If you do, we will detain and quarantine you ourselves, and it won’t be all that pleasant.
We, thank God, had nothing like that. It was honor-system lockdown, and I don’t know about you but I saw a lot of folks going through the whole thing with their fingers crossed.
What we had were stay-at-home orders – requests really – which in some circles came to be inaccurately called shelter-in-place orders. Oh well. Emergency managers who have spent years trying to get people to understand "shelter in place" – find a safe room and sit tight until the all-clear is given in an hour or two – will have to cook up some new jargon. It’s hard to see how that will add to the sum of human happiness.
Then there’s "quarantine," a medical term meaning a presumably healthy person potentially exposed to disease staying in one place for a certain time to make sure that person is not at risk of passing it on to others.
Remember when the astronauts came back from the first moon landing? Hail the astronauts and start the parade but not before we lock you into this hermetically sealed Winnebago deal for three weeks – three weeks – because there might be moon germs. Yeah, that’s a quarantine. Read up on 1918-19. Those were quarantines, too, with a sign in your front window telling one and all to stay the heck away.
What we had this spring was the best-lay-low-for-a-while type of quarantine.
Perhaps this language inflation is akin to the phenomenon under which people cry out for weather news because we all want to know every extreme detail of the tribulations we have just survived. That’s where stories of walking to school in three feet of snow come from. Exaggeration makes us stronger.
Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s on Twitter at @FoxEJC.