Opinion | The New Words for Our New Misery

Of all the personal development opportunities presented by quarantine — knitting, baking sourdough, starting a TikTok — there is none so user-friendly as talking to yourself.

Sue Elliott-Nicholls, 52, an actress in Britain, had spent plenty of time listening to her own voice before the pandemic; she makes her living doing voice-overs for television. But when lockdown robbed her of co-worker banter and gossip spilled at the local pub, she began to fill her days with private chatter.

She didn’t always have much to say. “My conversations with myself are proper dull,” she said. “I’ll be like, ‘Should I wash my socks today?’ ‘Yeah, go on, do it today.’”

Still, there was something satisfying in the exercise: “My mum always used to say the good thing about talking to yourself is you always get the answers you want.”

Periods of crisis and upheaval tend to, at least, provide ample topics of conversation. Archives find their richest materials in wartime — bulges of letters traded across oceans as households scatter and lovers are torn apart. But the pandemic has been more hushed. People stayed put. Cities turned quiet. Few spouses sent letters because they were seated beside each other for three meals a day.

“The phrase ‘You’re on mute’ may have been uttered more times this year than ever before in human history,” said Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist.

But there’s one age-old communication reflex we haven’t lost. Moments of adversity have often coincided with the invention of new vocabularies, and the pandemic has been no exception.

In the lead-up to World War II, the U.S. army chief of staff George C. Marshall created a soldiers’ handbook, which included a glossary of army slang that aimed to build morale. The troops invented their own terms too: “Motorized dandruff” meant insects in your uniform. “Misery pipe” referred to the bugle’s sound that woke you at an ungodly hour. A “blockbuster” was one of the bombs dropped by the Royal Air Force that destroyed a whole city street. “Snafu” stood for Situation Normal All Fouled Up (or a less family-friendly version). Converting the horrors of war into whimsical terms made the situation feel more bearable.

“The most control you can have over something is to coin new words for it,” said Seth Lerer, a literature professor and author of “Inventing English.”

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.

“Listening to someone else’s story is refreshing,” Ms. Baskin said. “It’s energizing not to deal with your own baggage. Being in conversation with someone you’ve never met means you get to reinvent yourself, choose what you want to talk about. Otherwise you can get stuck in your own head.”

Perhaps sensing my hesitancy, she asked: “Have you tried it?”

I signed up for QuarantineChat the next day and waited for my impromptu call. But the moment it flashed across my screen, I felt a twinge of dread. What would I talk about with this stranger? What was there to say about my day — the fact that I hadn’t yet left the house?

I wish I could tell you I picked up the call and discovered a soul mate thousands of miles away. I wish I could say the conversation lasted an hour as we bonded over our quarantine malaise and traded recipes for people who can ruin even toast. But as my phone shook insistently, I couldn’t ignore the pandemic pull of quiet. I hit ignore and looked back at my laptop.

Turns out after months of it, maybe I prefer my own company.

Emma Goldberg is a researcher and writer for The Times.

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