Our Pandemic Vocabulary

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| March 16, 2021

During the COVID-19 pandemic, have you found yourself staying home and ordering takeout because people weren’t socially distancing at the grocery store, and the cashier looked sus with that face mask hanging half-off?

And if I had asked you that question just over a year ago, would it have made sense to you? What kind of “face mask” would you have imagined? And what would “social distancing” and “sus” mean to you?

I posted this humorous meme to my Facebook page the first day that things started closing because of COVID-19.

This pandemic may have kept us away from each other, but it’s also brought us together in some crazy new ways. In our social circles online, we’ve created our own language around the pandemic itself and the pop culture phenomena that it gave rise to.

Let’s look at some of what I’m calling our “pandemic vocabulary” from the past year.


COVID and Coronavirus

News media has shaped how we talk about the virus itself. COVID-19, the most specific name of the virus, and its shortened form COVID, became common. We also heard Coronavirus so much it became a meme. We even heard stories about people naming their child Corona or Covid. And even the Corona beer makers had to bounce back when Americans misassociated the virus with their brand.


Face masks

In February 2020, perhaps the most common association we made with “face mask” was in reference to something worn as a costume or worn to protect the face in certain jobs or sports. By April 2020, there were thousands of vendors marketing cloth face masks to cover the nose and mouth while out in public. My friends and I started considering it a courtesy to wear them to help slow the spread of COVID-19 since science found we could transmit it up to 14 days before showing symptoms.

One of Hoot’s hand-sculpted face mask creations.

Similarly, the average person is also now likely to know that PPE stands for personal protective equipment. You may be familiar with the struggles of hospitals worldwide to have enough PPE for their staff throughout 2020.

And if we’re all going to be wearing these masks for our own safety, why not get creative with them? The featured image at the top of this article shows Replayers Maria Kinnun and Charlotte Merritt with masks that Charlotte made. Replayer Hoot (Jeff Owle), was inspired to construct fun handmade costume masks specially designed to wear over protective masks (check out the photo here). After a COVID-related layoff, Hoot turned his attention to building a home-based business to sell his masks (with a website coming later this month).


Social distancing

During the pandemic, governments and health organizations recommended or required people to take precautions to keep themselves and others from spreading COVID-19. Part of those recommendations added a new term to our vocabulary: social distancing. This means keeping a distance in social situations to reduce the chance of transmitting the virus by air. Basing their recommendations on recent years of scientific study, health organizations worldwide recommended distances from 1 meter (World Health Organization) to 6 feet (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Some people combined both face masks with social distancing for an extra level of precaution.


Postmates, Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash

Did I use Postmates to order Krispy Kreme doughnuts? Yes. Yes I did.

I’ve already mentioned the reduced hours and lost jobs that came as businesses suffered during the pandemic. Restaurants were hit particularly hard, especially if they didn’t already have a drive-through or delivery model. Besides having to adopt more stringent safety for preparing and serving food, many were forced to shift to a takeout-centric plan to stay in business. This reality has been a boon to third-party services that deliver food from area restaurants. In the US, the biggest names in takeout over the last year include Postmates, Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash. It’s likely that more Americans have one of those apps on their smartphones now than they would have without the pandemic.


Work-from-home, remote working, telecommuting

The nature of some businesses was that there just wasn’t any work during the pandemic. I already mentioned Hoot, a stage carpenter for live productions, who was finally laid off after four months of significantly reduced hours. His sister and brother-in-law were part of the crew in one of the traveling “Book of Mormon” productions, and they found their whole tour canceled.

Fortunately for myself and others in the tech industries, there was an option to start working from home. I am already a remotee who works completely from home, so my work routine didn’t change much. For my office-based co-workers, though, there was a major shift in routine. They set up new desks, chairs, and computer monitors to work from home, and they made sure they had internet connections to support their work-from-home needs. Some even started referring to their kids and pets as “coworkers.”

Many similar companies have used this pandemic experience to learn how they can better support their remote employees. They’ve also started looking at making telecommuting the norm for certain job roles, which can save a company in capital expenses like office space, parking, cleaning services, and snacks. It can also significantly reduce a company’s carbon footprint.


Zoom, online meetings, and online hangouts

When business and social gatherings started moving into online conferencing software, Zoom became a household name. Before the pandemic, my team at work had been using Zoom for a couple of years as one way to deliver online training. When the pandemic hit, skyrocketing Zoom usage prompted the company to hasten improvements to its software, making it more secure and easier to use. Zoom continues to monitor how vaccines and people getting back out into the world will impact the company moving forward.

Certainly, other online meeting platforms benefited from an increased number of users. However, it was Zoom that became synonymous with both business meetings and social gatherings during the pandemic. The Replayer Happy Hour hosted each Thursday by Brandy Brown (@watery_tart19) is an online hangout on Zoom. Many of us regularly in that hangout have learned how to combine Zoom with fun backgrounds and Snap Camera filters.

Replayers chatting in Zoom
Replayers chatting in Zoom just after a Thursday Retro Replay premiere.

Another social phenomenon with online meetings and classes is social protocol around how to properly use the software. One online class I took had rules about how to use the chat and “raise-hand” features and about not having the camera on if there’s going to be a lot of movement in the frame. At my work, where we primarily use Google Meets and BlueJeans for meetings, we ask people to kindly mute their mic if they have a lot of background noise. That said, we’ve become very forgiving for parents who have young kids at home that unexpectedly pop into the room.

There are other topics branching off from this that deserve their own articles: the challenge of moving schools to online classrooms, how fan conventions reproduced their convention experiences online, and how studio-based content creators like Rooster Teeth, Nerdist, and our own Retro Replay have used software like Zoom to reproduce the studio experience in an online format.


A watch party on Twitch

Watch parties

When Game of Thrones episodes were still coming out, Hoot and I invited local friends over to have a potluck dinner and watch each new episode together. Before the pandemic, social media companies were already including features to simulate watch parties like this online. The pandemic made the watch party more common as people sought shared entertainment and social experiences to replace going to the movies or hanging out with friends. This has prompted new features and enhancements that make it easier to host or join a watch party. Twitch even recently has launched a Watch Party feature that allows people to watch content hosted on Amazon streaming services using their Twitch channel space.


Sus, vent, crewmate, imposter, and doing tasks

GameTunes is just one of many YouTube creators that have created music and video content inspired by Among Us.

A lot of social games saw an uptick in use during the pandemic. Simple-concept games like Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout and Animal Crossing: New Horizons both had strong debuts in 2020, right as the world started staying at home and socially distancing. Perhaps the most notable success, though, is Among Us. Among Us is an online multiplayer social deduction game released by InnerSloth LLC back in June 2018. The game is cross-platform for Android, Apple, and PC (through Steam), making it easy to gather friends together even if they don’t own the major gaming consoles. 

During each Among Us game, everyone in the group is a crewmate that has a list of tasks to do around a map. However, one or two of the people in the group are actually randomly assigned imposters who are sabotaging and killing off the others who are doing tasks. The goal of the game depends on your role: crewmates try to finish tasks before the imposters kill them all, and imposters try not to be voted out by the crewmates before they have a chance to kill everyone.

As a result of the rise in Among Us popularity in 2020, new words have entered our common vocabulary. The word “suss” means to realize something, but sus, short for “suspicious,” is now the common way to let someone know you doubt they’re being truthful. “Vent” as a verb may mean to freely express yourself, but vent also now refers to escaping through a vent in the floor, something only imposters can do.

Amelia Brown makes an imposter kill in front of her fellow Replayers who are crewmates.


There’s so much more we could delve into about how the pandemic affected our pop culture and daily lives. I’m just scratching the surface here, highlighting a few parts of the story through some of the words we’ve started to use over the last year.

Do you use these words a lot, too? What other words can you think of that are far more common now than before the pandemic? Let’s discuss in the comments!


A special thanks to Replayers Charlotte Merritt and Beth Sarber who contributed their ideas as I planned out this article.


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