Pandemic, Panacea & Pandemonium: The Articulate Writer’s 2020 Vocabulary
Updated: Jun 26
There is no doubt that the events of 2020 will inspire countless films, books, articles and yes, even speeches. You might touch on the leadership aspects of your work in the healthcare industry. You might share about a personal loss. Perhaps you’ll relate a humorous story about life locked in a houseful of spirited children. Whatever you choose to share, you’ll be at your best when you fully understand the vocabulary of what has taken place. Here are some relevant words, broken down into four categories — Technical, Dramatic, Humorous and Inspirational — that will improve your project.
When writing about 2020’s events, it’s especially important to be clear and consistent in your choice of specialized words. With the help of Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Dictionary.com, let’s untangle and clarify some technical vocabulary:
Novel Coronavirus: It’s a new coronavirus that has not been seen before. According to Merriam-Webster, “The virus causing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold.”
COVID-19: A word mashup of “coronavirus disease 2019”: meaning “a potentially severe respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus and [often] characterized by fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.” (Note: Most commonly spelled in all caps, though some major news outlets use normal capitalization. When submitting works, be sure to check the style rules at the project's destination.)
Outbreak vs. Epidemic vs. Pandemic: They relate to each other, but there are important differences. According to Merriam-Webster, “An outbreak is “a sudden rise in the incidence of a disease”; an epidemic is “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time”; a pandemic is “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.” So, an outbreak may spread to become an epidemic, and an epidemic may spread to become a pandemic.
Respirator vs. Ventilator: They are not the same. A respirator is a mask, a form of personal protective equipment (PPE), that filters out harmful substances to protect the wearer. “Health professionals wear respirators to filter out virus particles as they breathe in so they don’t get infected with COVID-19 while helping people and patients,” reports Dictionary.com, which goes on to state that a ventilator is “a machine that helps a patient breathe. This machine pumps oxygen into the lungs and removes carbon dioxide through a tube.”
Contagious vs. Infectious: There is some confusion caused by overlap in their definitions. But they’re different in important ways. Merriam-Webster reports than “An ailment such as food poisoning is infectious, it is capable of producing infection, but it is not contagious. The coronavirus, on the other hand, is both contagious and infectious. Anything that is contagious is automatically also infectious, but the reverse is not true.”
Quarantine: This word has a long history of saving lives. In the mid-14th Century, bubonic plague killed a third of Europe’s population. To stop the plague’s spread, ships coming into harbor were required by law to isolate for a period of 30 days, which was called trentino. Over the next hundred years, the isolation period was increased to 40 days, which became known as quarantino, the root for today’s quarantine.
Social Distance: Merriam-Webster says that its modern meaning has more to do with safety and physical space than religious or cultural differences. We’ve avoided close contact with other people in order to minimize our chances of spreading a contagious disease. It adds, “The practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical distance from other people is referred to as social distancing, in use since 2003; the verb is socially distance.” So, I practice social distancing by socially distancing myself from my neighbors.
Comorbitity: According to Dictionary.com, comorbid is when multiple medical conditions present simultaneously in a patient. Example given: Diabetics with comorbid hypertension.
Asymptomatic: According to Merriam-Webster, it means an infected person is presenting no symptoms of disease.
To describe the challenges we’ve faced, you have a choice of many dramatic words. With the help of Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, let’s untangle and clarify a few.
Crisis: Several definitions of this noun could apply, depending on your project. It can be a turning point that changes a sequence of events. It might be a condition of danger or instability that also leads to a decisive change. It can also be “a dramatic emotional or circumstantial upheaval in a person’s life,” according to Merriam-Webster. Of course, it can be a medical crisis, especially “the point in the course of a serious disease at which a decisive change occurs, leading either to recovery or death,” as listed by Dictionary.com. In storytelling language, it could be the point where opposing elements are at the peak of their opposition. The “do or die” moment that speaks to the theme of your story.
Catastrophe vs. Cataclysm vs. Calamity: According to Wikidiff.com, the difference between the first two nouns is that “catastrophe is any large and disastrous event of great significance (which could happen over time) while cataclysm is a sudden, violent event.” Meanwhile, calamity might present itself as a personal event resulting in great loss.
Force Majeure: Dictionary.com defines this “superior force” as “a legal term in commercial and contract law for an unexpected, disruptive event that may excuse one party or both parties from a contract … [and] may be limited to what some jurisdictions term “acts of God,” such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc. This word may become more popular after 2020, as lawyers straighten out the legal ramifications of the pandemic. It will no doubt be part of many personal stories.
Disaster: According to Merriam-Webster, this noun grew from the ancient belief that the stars influence our fate — often in a bad way. Originally, it meant, “an unfavorable aspect of a planet or star.” Simply put, a disaster means bad luck has struck.
It is part of being human to notice the comedy inside each tragedy. Humor helps us accept hard truths, face challenges and muddle through to better times ahead. Let’s pay lighthearted homage to the antics of kids trapped in a house with parents or any other bizarre and funny moments that kept us laughing through our fears and tears.
Pandemonium: Merriam-Webster defines this word as a “wild uproar” or a “chaotic situation.” If you’re describing your attempts to home-school three children, all under the age of 9, this word might describe the results. Similar words include hubbub, cacophony and hullabaloo.
Jam-Pack: A home stuffed with three generations of one family might seem pretty full. Did you trip on others every time you crossed a room? Your house may have been jam-packed with people. But if everyone had a great time making music, art and poetry together, your home may have been jam-packed with fun!
Mischievous: There are many words to describe the many ways that kids misbehave. Just note that “mischievious” is commonly used but is considered nonstandard English. If your child was “able or tending to cause annoyance, trouble or minor injury,” then Merriam-Webster classifies him as mischievous. Maybe your daughter was “irresponsibly playful,” which is their second definition. Both undoubtedly kept a nervous parent awake at night. Other words to describe the child might include boisterous, sprightly and lively — depending on that day’s behavior.
Eccentric: When used as a noun, Merriam-Webster defines this word as “a person who behaves in odd or unusual ways.” Maybe it was a grandparent who slept on your roof or an aunt who tap-danced nonstop. If you took notes, you’ve got a story! Similar words might include loony, wacky and kooky. But just about everyone who went through 2020 proved to others that we are all, in some way, idiosyncratic. For writers, that’s a gift. Ultimately, without each person’s special qualities, we’d have nothing interesting to share.
Troubling times often bring moments of great human creativity, bravery and heroism. We are at our best when responding to a crisis. Stories of this nature will no doubt grow into the most impactful works that comes out of this universally shared event. Here are some words to add power.
Panacea: Merriam-Webster defines this noun as “a remedy for all ills or difficulties.” Largely considered to be magical, the advent of appropriate medical treatments and vaccines might well seem charmed as they change the game for all of us. Meanwhile, as we worked to solve the 2020 crises, have we found solutions for other problems along the way?
Health: Merriam-Webster’s first definition of this is “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit.” It points to the improvements that go beyond medical treatments and can uplift an inspirational article or poem with the full meaning of the word.
Well-Being: Merriam-Webster also provides lift for our writing with its first definition of this word, “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous.” Perhaps your how-to book can explain how to reach for all three parts of well-being.
Recovery: Merriam-Webster offers two meanings that are sure to inspire powerful stories. First, recovery is defined as “the act, process, or an instance of recovering.” This suggests that a full recovery will take effort, wisdom, patience and time. It supports their second meaning: “the process of combating a disorder.” That word, disorder, could refer to the pandemic. Yet, the key word in both is process, which invites the writer to propose ideas that could strengthen our recovery effort — to push us as we reach for solutions that will heal our global community. Your next project might awaken our can-do spirit, as we work together toward a better future.
Of course, you can use a dramatic word in a humorous story. There’s no strict rule, here, and creativity is encouraged. Regardless of your chosen use for each word, make sure you understand its definition and potential connotations before finalizing your project.