Going viral in the pandemic: Clichés

A pandemic manages to produce both terror and boredom.

A pandemic is strange in that it’s both terrible and boring. Terrible in that a million people in the U.S. and 3 million around the globe have gotten the bug. People who never before heard of Johns Hopkins University are now glued to its lurid worldwide map.

Boring in that the routines and language the pandemic have spawned have grown tiresome., especially the language and all the new metaphoric clichés. My top candidates for the Fingernails on Chalkboard awards are:

  • Zoom: Talking about it, discussing its vicissitudes, joking about how it’s infected everyone’s life — booorrrrrring!
  • Pivot and pivoting: I’d guess half the dozens and dozens of press releases I receive every day concern this or that company “pivoting” to making something else — respirators, ventilators, face masks, voodoo dolls. Thank you for helping out, but please stop talking about pivoting.
  • Social distance/distancing — First of all, it’s not social. My section of street held a keeping-apart social hour, with people wandering from one driveway to the other. Everyone kept the requisite 6 or 8 feet away. But it wasn’t “social” distancing. It was socializing a little farther away than usual. One lawn I walked past the other day had a big sign with a 6-foot arrow. “Social Distancing: It Saves Lives,” it read. I thought, “Thanks for the moralizing. I hadn’t heard.”
  • Virtual: Virtual meetings, virtual conferences, virtual trade shows, virtual cocktail hours, virtual classrooms … virtual this, virtual that, virtual, virtual, virtual. Like “real time,” this done-to-death cliché has its origins in a specific computing technique, dating back nearly to ENIAC (kids, that’s Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). Only later did virtual, in some instances, mean “remote.” Can’t we just say online, which these gatherings actually are?
  • Viral: Take the “tu” out of virtual and you’ve got viral. A family videoing itself in a way to ensure future inclusion in awkward family video compilations — it’s gone “viral,” we learn.  What does gone viral really mean? Simply that too many bored people are watching and forwarding stuff on YouTube and Facebook.
  • New normal: Ugh. This is not a new normal, it’s a temporary abnormal. Just stop.
  • Lock down: Except for prison inmates, no one is technically locked down. That’s true even in states with the most aggressive governors, where it admittedly comes close. It’s okay to go buy food or get a broken leg set. In China we saw footage of troops welding people’s doors shut, but so far U.S. authorities more or less follow the Constitution.
  • “We’ll get through this,” and its cousin, “We’re all in this together”: Well, yes, both are factually correct. But what do they really say? Mostly they’re used in advertising, like, as a moral fig leaf for trying to get you into an 84-month car loan.
  • “In these uncertain times…”: For Heaven’s sake, what times ever have been certain? (Thanks to producer Eric White for that one.)
  • “Stay well and healthy”: Thank you, but this ranks right up with “Thoughts and prayers.” Of course we hope everyone is okay, but it’s also okay not to start every virtual conversation with it.

Stay safe, wash your hands thoroughly then sanitize them. Mask up and avoid respiratory droplets. You can make it till we reopen.

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