By Claudia Quesito
The extraordinary times we are experiencing have wide ramifications in our economic, political, social, and individual life, language included. 2020 has indeed brought new words and expressions. Some of them are scientific and technical terms, such as COVID-19, coronavirus, distanziamento sociale.
Then there are terms like droplet, spillover, and lockdown. Italians are using a lot of English terms to talk about the pandemia, which itself comes from the ancient Greek word pándēmos, meaning “affecting everyone.” Newspapers and casual conversations are dotted with phrases like contact tracing and social distancing and such, although in many cases there are perfectly viable Italian equivalents.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Italians mostly used quarantena to generally refer to “being locked down; not being allowed to leave your place if not for valid reasons,” but quarantena clearly hints at forty days: During the Black Death epidemic (in the fourteenth century), forty days was indeed the period for which all ships arriving in Venezia were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could disembark. The first Italian lockdown, however, lasted way more than forty days, and progressively the term quarantena has been replaced by lockdown, or isolamento, which refers to “being locked down because of sickness.”
Some neologisms are less orthodox, but nonetheless widely used, like verbs such as quarantenare (from quarantena), or tamponare (from tampone, that is, swab). This last verb is interesting because its 2020 edition adds a new meaning to the existing meanings of tamponare: to rear-end, to make a quick fix, or to stop up.
The queen of previously existing words raised to a whole new level, however, is, congiunti, which means relatives. Until April 2020, congiunti was buried in law textbooks; one would have normally said parenti. After the Italian Prime Minister used it during a press conference presenting measures meant to loosen the lockdown (you were, indeed, allowed to meet congiunti), it became ordinary.
Hopefully, the end of the pandemic will bring us some (merry) new terms, or some surprising twists on existing ones. Stay tuned!