Choosing my words

Dad and I on a summer day decades and decades ago. Read to the end of my post to see why he’s so important to the topic.

Words have always been part of my business, so of course the language of the pandemic has been interesting to me. It’s also over-used.

The terms we’ve been using to describe the pandemic — unprecedented, extraordinary, unparalleled  (and all the other “uns” like unheard of, unforgettable, unbelievable, unimaginable) — need a refresh. We need to come up with something else — historic (it will be), novel, singular, aberrant. The first synonym for aberrant is abnormal. Yes, this is not normal and in fact many of us are talking about the “new normal” — another one for the vocabulary.

I do like unthinkable. (Did you ever think you would part of a pandemic? It never crossed my mind.)

According to dictionary.com, aberrant means “departing from the right, normal or usual course.” That certainly fits. What about endless? In mid-March when Illinois shut down, it seemed “unimaginable” we would do that for more than three or four weeks at most. Here we are months later. Some of us are dipping our toes into “re-entry” (whatever that means, add that term to the pandemic vocabulary) more than others, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Virus cases are apparently rising more than not and so the race to reopen and expand our own comfort zones is stymied. The friends, family and associations around me are beginning to speak in terms of 2021 before we plan any group face-to-face events.

Catastrophic works. The hospitality industry — from restaurants to major airlines — has been brought to its knees. Any number of players, large and small, won’t survive. Even more grievous, individual households face collapse under financial and medical crises. Oops! Don’t get me started. We’re just talking words here. There are any number of reasons to look on this as a catastrophe.

Actually, for whatever reason, when all this started, the word pandemic had an old-fashioned connotation to me, as in “the black death.” According to Merriam-Webster a pandemic “is an outbreak of a disease occurring over a wide geographic area and affecting an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” It was something I thought went out with the Spanish flu. But here we are.

On a personal level we all know the pandemic is alternately scary, worrisome, lonely, boring, and tiring. We don’t sleep well, our eating is indulgent (and I’m being polite here). We’re cranky (at least I am) and frankly depressed. Disjointed is a good word for right now. It’s a good news/bad news kind of time. Two steps forward and then at least one step back.

And why am I on this vocabulary quest? Two words: my Dad. He was an ad man long before I was ever a writer or editor. He loved language and finding new words. His pithiest writing advice to me was to skip the “50-cent word when a 10-center will work.” For years he wrote new words and their definitions down on 3 by 5 index cards. He did this as he read the paper, magazines, books. This drove my mother crazy. The index cards were everywhere — neatly stacked beside his empty coffee cup, falling out of sofa cushions, tucked into books and magazines. I’m sure she threw away more than half of what he wrote down, but still he collected words. Ironically, he suffered a small stroke in his late fifties that temporarily robbed him of language. He could talk but had no vocabulary. It took weeks just to get the basics back.

So, Dad, this one’s for you.

What about you? What’s your word for the pandemic?

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe & see you again soon.

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