Vocabulary Goes Viral

Vocabulary goes viral - Photo by N. Bresler

Shhh… don’t tell my boss, but I must say I’ve got a pretty easy job. English being the lingua franca of global commerce means job security for Business English instructors, especially for those of us already used to teaching online. Thanks to the internet, gaming, TV and movies, English vernacular has crept into the conversation of Israelis of all ages. And in business, English words are basic vocabulary – especially in the high-tech sector where I work. I remember the day a student asked me, “How do you say configuratzia in English”? Imagine his surprise when I revealed that the English word is actually: configuration.

But now there is a new vocabulary that we are encountering. Students ask me about words that I am only now learning for the first time. Words I’d heard, but never bothered to look up. Oh, that’s just something medical, I’d think to myself. Tfoo, tfoo, tfoo, let’s hope we never need to know this stuff. Oh well, never say never. I used to call these “Grey’s Anatomy words” (my fellow boomers may think of them as Dr. Kildare words, as I do). You hear them in the TV show and you know they mean something, but you can easily understand the whole episode without having the slightest idea of their actual definitions. I’m not sure the actors know what they mean either.

Sad to say, the day has come when we actually need to learn these words. It’s a new world with a whole new vocabulary. And it’s viral.

Some words are easy – just new to the ears, like symptomatic and asymptomatic. The meaning is clear as a bell. These words work just like synchronous and asynchronous – terms very well known to my techie students. And they’re also akin to those exotic concepts, political and apolitical, the latter being a rarity in this country. I know there are apolitical people and organizations someplace in the world – but not so much here in Israel. That concept seems purely theoretical around here!

Then there are these two words which confuse most people – including me: ‘morbidity’  versus ‘mortality’. To me, they both sound as if they would mean the same thing. After all both words derive from the root ‘mori’ meaning to die. But morbidity is about someone’s level of health or sickness while mortality is about their risk of death. It’s counter-intuitive – something that drives my students crazy, since most of them are technologists – engineers, programmers, data scientists – people who prefer things to be coherent and logical. Welcome to the absurd world of modern language.

These days everyone is asking, What’s the difference between quarantine, isolation and lockdown? Well, I didn’t know at first, and it seems half the politicians and commentators don’t know either. By I’ve looked it up, so I do know now. I had to find out in order to answer my students’ questions. Yes, alas, I’m becoming a viral vocabulary expert. Lucky for me, the etymologies of these words are pretty interesting, so the research is fun. And this is exactly how I teach vocabulary. I always start with the root and try to tell a story for each new word, so that the student will remember it. For instance when a student asks about the actual meaning of ‘data attribution’ I tell a story. Many of my students know how to DO data attribution, though they may not know what the words actually mean. So I explain attribution by going back to the root and then connecting attribute with tribute. And I give cool examples they can relate to, like tribute bands and the Tributes in the Hunger Games. Well, I think they’re cool. I am a word nerd, after all. Even if my little stories are not really as cool as I think, they are usually memorable. It is not lost on me that we humans learn from making connections, not from memorizing strings of letters and syllables.

So ‘isolation’ comes from the Latin word insula, meaning “island.” But we didn’t take it directly from the Latin, of course – that would be too easy. We got it from the French word isolé. And when I explain that one, I always mention the imprisonment of Napoleon, a personal favorite of mine, who actually was isolé on an island – the Isle de Elba, to be precise, until his daring escape. What’s this affinity for a tyrannical dictator like Napoleon, you wonder? Well, you’d have to ask my friends who call me Napo. Something about being short and bossy with a nerdy haircut. They should just see me now, after 6 weeks inside, and the self-inflicted hatchet job I did on my bangs. But I digress.

So now we get to ‘quarantine’. It’s not related to the word ‘quarter’, as in a residential quarter or ghetto, as I might have guessed. No, this one comes from the Italian word ‘quarantena’ meaning forty days, which was the period the Venetians imposed on mariners to isolate them during the plague in the 14th-15th-century. Ah, how appropriate. How I wish that quarantena were the actual number of days of our house arrest. Baby boomers like me have already been inside longer than that.

There are some confusing terms we don’t really need to delve into. Like ‘contagious’ versus ‘infectious’. Yes there are subtle differences, and of course I’ve looked it up. Word nerd, remember? But since the coronavirus is both contagious and infectious, we can just leave it at that. And we’ve got ‘epidemic’ versus ‘pandemic’ versus ‘outbreak’, and ‘community spread’ and ‘contact tracing’ and ‘bacterial’ versus ‘viral’ infections… The list goes on and on. That’s okay, this isolé period gives us lots of time to look up word origins and muse over them. Whether it will last 40, 50 or 100 days remains to be seen.

About the Author
Nili Bresler is a member of Israel's pro-democracy movement. She is a business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, Nili was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. Nili volunteers with the nonprofit, NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives in Ramat Gan.
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