Jack Knox: Strange new word — flattening the curve, one dandelion at a time

‘You know you can’t kill them all, right?”

She was on the deck, watching me uproot dandelions from the back lawn. Dozens and dozens of dandelions that suddenly flowered from nowhere, just like all those buy-cheap-masks scams that pop up in your e-mail.

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“I know,” I replied, “but I can flatten the curve.”

This is my self-isolation goal now, staying on top of the dandelions before they spread out of control. As soon as those little yellow heads appear, boom, out they come, expelled from civil society like a Costco hoarder.

Then, every day at 3 p.m., I drag a makeshift podium into the middle of the lawn and announce the daily tally: “Today we identified 55 new dandelions, which were immediately isolated in the old garbage can next to the wheelbarrow. This brings this spring’s total to 268.”

A month ago such behaviour would have been seen as nuts. Today, it’s simply divorce-worthy. People understand the reference. They get what you mean when you talk about flattening the curve, a phrase that first appeared in the Times Colonist just a few weeks (really? wasn’t it years?) ago.

We have, in fact, adopted a whole new lexicon, comfortably spitting out terms we had never wrapped our tongues around before: “coronavirus,” “shelter in place,” “PPEs” and “Trump said what?!?” (OK, that last one’s not new).

We can hair-split the difference between “self-quarantine” and “self-isolate,” know the distinction between “pandemic” and “epidemic,” and will confidently weigh in on whether it’s better to refer to “physical” rather than “social” distancing.

So common have some terms suddenly become that Merriam Webster, which usually only recognizes new words once they have proven their staying power, revamped its online dictionary March 18, adding or redefining the likes of “contact tracing” and “community spread.”

“Because the COVID-19 crisis has developed at such a rapid pace and some of the words and ideas associated with the crisis are themselves new, we have made an unscheduled update for words connected with the disease and responses to it,” the publisher announced. Note that the name COVID-19 itself was used for the first time on Feb. 11.

Maybe our familiarity with this new, strange vocabulary will be a short-term thing, similar to the way we all start talking like English soccer (er, football) commentators when the World Cup rolls around every four years: “France led one-nil at the hour but Nigeria equalized in stoppage time.”

Not likely, though. Chances are “flattening the curve” and “social distancing” will become embedded, just as such words as “staycation,” “microblogging,” “turducken” and “cheeseball” (the human variety) have all stayed with us since being added to the Oxford Dictionary of English in 2010.

On the other hand (and speaking of the World Cup) you don’t hear much anymore from one of that year’s other additions, “vuvuzela,” the annoying noisemaker/horn whose monotonous drone provided the soundtrack to that year’s soccer finals in South Africa.

Words and expressions come and go. “You sound like a broken record” and “a penny for your thoughts” are now as obsolete as “hold your horses” (though we still talk about “dialling” numbers and say “I’m hanging up now” even though rotary phones with actual hooks disappeared around the same time as your Bay City Rollers album).

Similarly, allusions to historical events can become meaningless as history fades. In newsrooms, journalists are now admonished to refrain from appending the suffix “gate” to every scandal du jour. Where it was once common to default to Tunagate (1985), Bingogate (1995), Shawinigate (1999) or Casinogate (also 1999), by the time Tom Brady played with his balls and gave us Deflategate (2015) many had forgotten, or never heard of, the Watergate break-in of 1972. The kids in Grade 12 today weren’t even born when 9/11 happened, so how are they supposed to remember Richard Nixon and G. Gordon Liddy?

Pop-culture references have even narrower windows. After a burglar was convicted of breaking into Burton Cummings’ Saanich Peninsula house, but not sent to prison, I wrote what I thought was a brilliant headline: “He got, got, got, got, got no time.” For those of you staring blankly at the page, Cummings was lead singer for a popular band called the Guess Who, and they played a song that went. … Oh, never mind.

I’m going to hang up now and go do my best to flatten the curve. Language adapts. So can we.

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