Bubbles and a breakthrough: the language of COVID (update)

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by Kate Woodford

In February of 2020, my colleague Liz Walter wrote a post on the language of COVID-19: Quarantine, carriers and face masks: the language of the coronavirus. Today, I’m looking at some of the many COVID-related words and phrases that we are using almost a year later.

Starting with the good news, at last, there is hope of an end to this pandemic in the form of vaccines. This development is being widely described as a major breakthrough – a hugely important achievement – in the fight against this disease. Of course, we all hope that in 2021, with enough people vaccinated (= given the vaccine), life will eventually return to normal. In the meantime, the virus is still very much with us. At the time of writing, a new strain (= type) of the coronavirus has been detected in the UK, causing a lot of concern as it is thought that it spreads more easily. Restrictions on people’s behaviour are once again being tightened (= made more strict) in order to stop its spread.

We are doing everything we can to stop the transmission (= spread) of the virus. Much of the recent scientific advice has focused on preventing airborne transmission, i.e. transmission by particles carried in the air. This has meant a focus on social distancing (= keeping away from other people). This phrase is now part of everyday vocabulary, though few of us knew it before 2020. We also talk about socially-distanced classrooms, meet-ups, performances, etc. Sometimes we use the verbal phrase socially distance, for example, complaining that it is difficult to socially distance in certain environments.

Workplaces provide their staff with personal protective equipment or PPE – equipment and clothing to protect them from health risks. During periods when schools were shut, only the children of key workers (= doctors, nurses, police officers, etc. who are necessary for society to function) were allowed to attend.

When we have been able to socialize this past year, we’ve done so in places that were Covid-safe or Covid-secure, (= frequently cleaned, allowing enough space for social distancing, etc.). Currently, most of us can only socialize with our bubble a small group that we have contact with – while staying away from people generally. We talk about ‘support bubbles’ – small groups created to provide support for people who live alone. We also use the verb ‘bubble’, saying that we have ‘bubbled with’ a particular household or person.

If we contract the virus or think we may have contracted it, we self-isolate (= don’t leave our homes and stay away from other people) so that we don’t infect anyone else. We do this even if we are asymptomatic (= showing no symptoms) as we know that people can have the virus without showing symptoms.

Strategies to stop the spread of the disease are different around the world. In the UK, there is currently a regional tier (= level) system in which each tier has different restrictions on, for example, which businesses can open and how many households (= people who live together) can mix. In some countries restrictions were relaxed (= made less strict) for a short period over the Christmas holiday to allow small gatherings. There is concern that this relaxing of restrictions will cause infections to rise, and hospitals will be overwhelmed (= made to fail because of having too much to deal with).

I hope you found this post interesting and useful. More than that, I hope that you have a happy, healthy 2021.

31 thoughts on “Bubbles and a breakthrough: the language of COVID (update)

  1. Hello, very interesting article.

    I do have a doubt though. Does the word overwhelmed imply that the person will fail?

    Thank you.

    El mié, 20 ene 2021 a las 8:00, About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog () escribió:

    > Kate Woodford posted: ” by Kate Woodford In February of 2020, my colleague > Liz Walter wrote a post on the language of COVID-19: Quarantine, carriers > and face masks: the language of the coronavirus. Today, I’m looking at some > of the many COVID-related words and phrases that ” >

      1. Chaos

        I think that if the hospitals are overwhelmed, there will not be enough doctors, nurses and medical resources for newly infected patients.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hello! In this context, ‘overwhelm’ means ‘to give someone too much to deal with’. In the UK, we keep hearing about the threat of hospitals being overwhelmed. I hope that helps.

  2. The most important thing to overcome the Covid-19 is its source – how it starts, where it comes from and the original viruse/s otherwise we are fighting blindly. Like no target to shoot at. Just shooting aimlessly.

  3. Herzlichen Dank für diesen wundervollen Artikel. Und die gute Gelegenheit to brush up English for people like me who had no occasion or need to communicate with my folk. So: Thanks a lot!

  4. Tatiana Balandina

    Thank you,Kate! Your post is utterly informative. It was very interesting to know that the verb “overwhelm” can be used with the word “hospital”. I used it only when I said that I was overwhelmed with work. Can we use it in other collocations? I know also “to be overwhelmed by feelings’,

    1. Denis

      Hi, Tatiana. You can use a number of different collocations with the word ‘overwhelmed’ based on its meaning and the context of your sentence.
      For instance, ‘overwhelm’ also means ‘to defeat someone or something by using a lot of force’ as in ‘Government troops have overwhelmed the rebels and seized control of the capital.’ It suggests that we can say ‘overwhelmed rebels’, ‘overwhelmed by troops’, etc. It all would depend on the context.
      In addition to its common usage, if water overwhelms a place, it covers it suddenly and completely.

    2. Kate Woodford

      Hi Tatiana! Thanks for your kind comment! There’s a sense of ‘overwhelm’ which generally means ‘give someone more of something than they can manage’, so, really, it’s the same sense as your work sense. I included it in this post because in the UK, at least, we’re hearing it all the time in relation to our hospitals and National Health Service. I hope that helps. Best wishes to you!

  5. Denis

    Dear Kate,
    Let me thank you for this lovely piece of information. I’ve relished reading it!
    At the same time, I’d really like to know your opinion on which of the following sentences sounds better or more grammatically appropriate to you:
    ‘Government officials often checked out restaurants to make sure that visitors abided by all requirements during the pandemic.’
    ‘Government officials often checked out restaurants to make sure that visitors had always abided by all requirements during the pandemic.’

    Please, let me also know if there is any difference in meaning.


    1. Kate Woodford

      Thanks, Denis! Either sentence sounds okay, though I want to use ‘would’ for repeated actions in the first part of the sentence and the past continuous in the second, ie Government officials would check out… to make sure people were abiding by the rules…’ Best wishes.

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