The Cold War’s vocabulary captured the country’s pervading sense of angst. Children were ducking under their desks in classrooms, hands over their heads, to prepare for the threat of a nuclear attack. Teenagers were terrorized by maps that showed the distance radiation could travel if a bomb was dropped in Times Square.
“It became part of your worldview that there could be unbelievable desolation with the push of a button,” said Paul Dickson, 81, author of “War Slang.” And from that worldview came new words: “Overkill,” “meltdown,” “going nuclear.”
“The Cold War cast a grim shadow that hung over our language,” he told me.
This year as well, we’ve found novel words for our novel misery. “Quarantini,” for when you can’t actually meet a friend for drinks. “Maskne,” for the pesky zits popping up under our masks. “Miss Rona,” for the faceless foe we’re staring down. New phrases embedded themselves in our vocabularies, replicated, sometimes mutated as they spread. Worry gave way to wordplay.
But if the lexicon of World War II was marked by levity and the vocabulary of the Cold War fiery with fear, the language that’s emerged from our modern crisis has been more jaded. Like many of us, it’s worn out. The catchphrases of our Covid months are unsentimental and carried on an eye roll: “Doomscrolling,” “mask-hole,” “covidiot,” “travel-shaming,” “Zoom fatigue.”
But if there’s anything that brings us together this year, it’s the fact that we’re all apart. That may have an interesting effect on pronunciation patterns, which usually change rapidly as people across regions interact. During the pandemic that process ground to a halt. The linguists Betsy Sneller and Suzanne Wagner at Michigan State University have been collecting recorded speech from Michigan residents weekly since April, tracking the effects of social distancing, and predict this year will have a “meteoric” impact on language development. Shifts in pronunciation that had been accelerating for decades are likely to freeze as our interactions are limited mostly to family. Video conversations, it turns out, don’t tend to effect our speech patterns as much as in-person ones do.
Some have come up with creative forms of communication to connect across these divides. For many of us, Zoom happy hours aren’t cutting it. So Rachel Syme, a writer in Brooklyn, started Penpalooza, a site that has paired more than 7,000 people across 50 countries to send one another letters. Ms. Syme has received cookies, glassy vials of perfume, jams and “Mary Oliver-type reflections on nature” from her various pen pals. There’s an intimacy and mindfulness to the routine that she hopes to transport into her postvaccine world.
And in San Francisco, the artist Danielle Baskin and her friend Max Hawkins created QuarantineChat on their app Dialup, which connects random people through surprise phone calls. Since March the app has logged 50,000 hours of conversations from more than 84,000 pairings of people. One record call, between two randomly selected biologists, lasted 11 hours.