Wording sociality and health: COVID-19’s lexicon revisited

Wording sociality and health: COVID-19’s lexicon revisited

Anthr{dendum} welcomes guest blogger Elena Burgos Martinez.

It is all a matter of words.

The recent emergence of a wealth of COVID-19-related material shows that we all narrate this crisis. Daily concepts are de-constructed and re-constructed, re-produced and co-produced and, as users, we all inhabit the realms of terminology. But when parlance fails us, when the linguistic spaces of public inquiry fail to accommodate the sophistication of linguistic diversity, then what? Situated beyond the dualism of academia and policy, this initiative seeks to turn the eye inward in the dissecting of daily words, concepts and silences, both familiar and unfamiliar, beyond a dualistic approaches to the signified and the signifier, to highlight the impact of today’s biases and assumptions, as they linger in the constitutive background of policies of sociality, health and illness.

Words make worlds (Gluck and Tsing, 2009). Recently, our worlds have been subjected to the upcoming of a new lexicon and, once again, transformed by the cultural project of existing powers: ‘unity’ against ‘the plague-spreader’ has reinvigorating the existing masculinities of a variety of nationalisms across our worlds. Meanwhile, the untranslated worlds of existing social inequalities have retreated to the dialectic spaces of deafening critique.  What is left unworded and untranslated also produces worlds; the assumed universality of COVID-19’s vocabulary and concepts has contributed to existing sociocultural frictions: the diversity of places is subjugated to the homogeneity of their majorities. In an attempt to standardise notions of health, illness and prevention, supra-national organisations have taken it to anglicise and standardise the local, the experienced, the contextual and the vernacular. It is time to benefit from home-based and home-bound ethnographies and observatory exercises where we have submitted our own practices, tendencies and routines to revision.

The (a) temporality of COVID-19’s lexicon suggests it has arrived to stay, with all its good old catergorisations of bodies, bodily relations, culinary morals, healing propagandas, romanticising and demonising exercises, the words we have started to recite almost daily carry traces of existing ontologies of power, leaving a mark in the very ethos of a community. This is beyond the textual, it is a matter of the senses: we taste, feel, hear, see and smell new temporalities that feel atemporal, normal that feel anormal, newness that feels old. The metaphors, visual manifestations, soundscapes and delineations of COVID-19’s pandemic constitute uncanny, new, familiar frameworks from which to (re) interpret routine.

What words/concepts function as pillars of the communicative orders of COVID-19? What are the powers and hegemons new COVID-19 vocabulary has enabled and/or disabled? What metamorphoses have the lexicons of sociality gone through during the first quarter of 2020? What has been left unworded and untranslated in all this mess and in all this order? How do standardised and anglicised conceptualisations of health, illness and prevention affect the diversity of local linguascapes and the socialities they illustrate?

This new anthology seeks to critically revisit words and concepts that have become prominent and/or have been silenced during the COVID-19 hiatus. By observing the disturbances, frictions and alliances the conceptual worlds of a novel virus have constructed and de-constructed around the world, we learn to coherently situate responses and relations. Anyone interested in the words and worlds of COVID-19’s lexicon, as it is put in context, is welcome to send an idea for an entry to e.e.burgos.martinez@hum.leidenuniv.nl. This anthology will feature anonymous as well as authored submissions of approximately 800 to 1200 words each.


Gluck, C.; Tsing, A. L. (eds.) (2009) ‘Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon.’ Duke University Press: Durham and London.

Image: https://nowtoronto.com/culture/comic-eric-kostiuk-williams-covid-and-its-metaphors/?fbclid=IwAR1MPEtzqal8-ONCLTpPgJJBBxUJg2fp9ZqrqnOjorVocIIFJ9NJ7x14PFA)