Social vs. physical distancing: How pandemics affect our vernacular

An Edmonton writer and educator says the World Health Organization starting to use the term physical distancing in place of social distancing was an important step forward.

To Tim Cusack, a former CBC Poetry Face-Off winner, it’s critical to ensure people use the right terminology to describe their actions. He says while this is particularly true when trying to communicate these issues to children, it also affects how people treat each other generally.

“We need to be socially connected to encourage each other, to help each other, to look after each other, whereas we need to maintain this physical distancing,” Cusack said during an interview on Daybreak Alberta.

This difference in wording, with the implied importance of being supportive during difficult times and maintaining social connections, will remain a part of our collective vernacular even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends, Cusack said.

The basic reproduction number — known as R0 or R-nought — is another term that’s becoming more commonly used and one Cusack thinks will remain a part of people’s vocabulary after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. The number refers to the expected number of illnesses to stem from one case of the disease, measuring the disease’s expected rate of infection.

In a crisis, words matter and some of the phrases we use now are centuries old. To discuss the origins of those phrases, Russell spoke with Tim Cusack, writer, educator and former CBC poetry faceoff winner. They started with something that became a common playground rhyme. 14:38

Cusack compared this to how words like plague and scourge have become commonly used by people to refer to problems that aren’t necessarily the strict definition of an illness long after their initial use.

The way people have made light of the illness as a coping mechanism is something Cusack has seen already during the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that some are already referring to the babies who will be born from this isolation period as “coronials.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon. A children’s song from the early 1900s called In Flew Enza originated during the Spanish Flu, which was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.

The song goes, “I had a little bird, its name was Enza. I opened the window and in flew Enza.”

“I think that’s a coping mechanism that sometimes people will look for ways to provide a context or lend a familiarity to something, even something as dangerous or unwanted as a pandemic,” Cusack said.

The origin of a more common rhyme stretches even further back. Cusack said that many believe the Ring Around the Rosie song comes from the Great Plague, or Black Death, that broke out in 1665.

Ring around the rosies refers to red eyes, while a pocket full of posies comes from the herbs people would carry with them as a preventative measure to the disease. In some versions the next line is “a-tishoo a-tishoo” or “ashes ashes,” which could signify sneezing or cremation respectively.

“I remember singing that as a younger child thinking this was a happy, optimistic, fun tune when really it was sourced in some sadder times in history,” Cusack said.