Postcard From the Pandemic: The Language of the Virus

Anndee Hochman

Back at the dawn of the pandemic—which is to say, a momentary eon ago, when we thought it was adorable and safe to elbow-bump our friends—my housemate, a professional copy editor, asked if we knew the origin of the word quarantine.

“This pandemic is changing us, at every level: our antibodies, our economy, even the words that flit or stumble off our tongues.”

We didn’t. She enlightened us: During the 14th-century Black Plague, Italian officials isolated and detained all sea travelers for thirty days to monitor them for illness, a period later lengthened to forty days—quarante giorni.

“If they’d left it at thirty days, we’d all be trentatining,” she quipped. Which put the fourteen-day period of isolation following a coronavirus exposure into humbling perspective. It also reminded me of something that, for a writer, should not have come as a news flash: Words have meaning—even when their bright, just-minted import has faded over time.

This pandemic—from the Greek pandemos: pan (all) and demos (people)is changing us, at every level: our antibodies, our economy, even the words that flit or stumble off our tongues. Until mid March, social distancing was not a household phrase. Nor was abundance of caution. Flatten the curve. Superspreader. Self-quarantine. Or—lest we forget that this microscopic menace of a bug leapt from animals to humans—zoonotic.

I have a habit of talking with my hands. And because coronavirus has cramped my gestural vocabulary—no more hugs, high-fives or shoulder-rubs, no more tousling the hair of my teenager only to coax an exasperated eye-roll—I’m more fixated than ever on the words I use and the charge they carry.

I hover over the start of a business e-mail, then begin. “First and most important, I hope you and your family are safe and healthy.” Even to ask, “How are you?” in a time of plague is a real and tremulous question. I hold my breath until the reply pings back: We’re fine. And…how are you?

Illness and contagion, over the centuries, has left linguistic residue. My parents used to trundle me to bed with a sing-song, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” A charming, childlike refrain…until the year, not so long ago, when my family feared we might have bedbugs (they were carpet beetles, in the end). I thought about my ancestors, sleeping restlessly on straw-stuffed sacks alive with vermin, praying they wouldn’t wake to a line of scarlet welts.

If my sweetheart sneezes and I call “Bless you,” from the kitchen, I’m invoking a phrase that originated during that devastating Black Plague, when a sneeze was the first flag of illness. “Gesundheit,” which my Yiddish-speaking grandparents borrowed from German—gesund (healthy) and heit (hood)—dates more recently, to 1914, but carries the same import. Bless you, my love. And please don’t die.

Now, COVID-19 brings fresh urgency to limp clichés. At the conclusion of my weekly Spanish class, now held on Zoom, I wave goodbye to my compatriots. “Cuidense,” I call. Take care. I used to toss the word off without thinking. Now I mean it: Take care of yourselves. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Don’t get sick before la proxima semana.

What words will this pandemic leave printed in our psyches, in our art? Or will the legacy be words, at all? With our faces half-cloaked in cotton, our hands forbidden to reach out, we must find other means to convey our joy and terror, shock and grief. I learn to decode a grin from an eye-corner crinkle, the rise of cheeks above the piping of a hand-sewn mask. Years from now, will I lift my hand to neighbors while I step into the street to let them pass? 

Touch may be radioactive. Physical distancing, which feels so wrong, can save our lives. And still, we hunger to connect, to communicate, with whatever flawed means we have at hand. Will this pandemic help us read each other better? If I wear my mask to the grocery store, how will you interpret what I mean? I’m sick. I’m paranoid. Dr. Fauci is my God. I care about your health. I coughed today. I’m protecting myself. I have cancer. I have an immune disorder. I made this from a t-shirt and a YouTube video. Someone at my house is very sick. I can’t afford to have these groceries delivered. I’m hiding. I’m “coming out” as a person with COVID-19. I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.

Our words and the gestures we can still employ—a shrug, a wink, a heaven-help-me glance—are everything these days. We’ve never needed meaning more.

I finish my business e-mail. See you soon, I type. Be well.

That’s not a casual sign-off. It’s an aspiration (a wisp of smoke, a rising of desire), cousin to respiration, from Latin’s “spiritus” (breath of a god) and Old French “espirit” (spirit, soul). Respiration: a word reflexive as the body function it refers to…until the moment it turns ragged, each inhalation a panicked gasp for air. Then, breath is everything: soul and spirit, life itself. We aspire to respire, to breathe again, without fear and trembling, without thought. We wait for the long ahhh that will mean the worst is over, that we lived to tell the tale, that we can, at last, let go.


Anndee Hochman is the author of Anatomies: A Novella and Stories and the essay collection Everyday Acts & Small Subversions: Women Reinventing Family, Community and Home. Her column, The Parent Trip, appears weekly in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her work has also been published in the Jewish Exponent, Broad Street Review, Purple Clover, and other venues. She’s currently sheltering, playing Scrabble, and holding impromptu dance parties with her partner, teenaged daughter, and housemates in Philadelphia.

Thumbnail credit: Mark Hillringhouse