Social distancing in foreign languages

Have you ever wondered what new terms relating to the Coronavirus outbreak have been appearing in foreign languages? In this article the team at PLS give an insight into the terminology in their native languages.


Since March, we’ve been met with a host of new terms that we’ve had to get our heads around, such as social distancing and COVID-19. Not only do we have to understand what they mean, but we are expected to perform actions relating to them, so it’s essential that we have a clear grasp of these neologisms. If you’re learning a foreign language or are interested in other cultures, read on to see what linguistic battles our language neighbours are fighting!



I just learnt yesterday that self-isolation is when you have symptoms and self-quarantine is when you don’t but may have been exposed to the virus.

We talk about social distancing to describe something which is actually physical distancing. 

COVID – is it pronounced covid [kɒvɪd] with a short vowel sound, or coh-vid [koʊvɪd], with a diphthong “double vowel”, and does how you pronounce it depend on how you say bath?!



In France, there’s been a debate related to the gender of the virus! L'Académie française decided it should be feminine, la COVID, because it's a disease and disease is a feminine word (la maladie). But everybody uses le COVID, because virus is a masculine word. Some of us are also using the nickname le Corona, which is masculine following the same logic as above, and also avoids any confusion as feminine la Corona is the beer!

We also talk about distanciation sociale, although les gestes barrières is a better term, because it includes all the things we can do to protect each other. Another important thing to note is that it’s distanciation sociale and not distance sociale, which entails contempt.




In Poland it seems that social distancing, dystans społeczny, had some traction, but more as a term used by the government and on public signs, and not really by the general population.

Poles have been quite creative because we write Coronavirus with a “k” (koronawirus) and korona is a crown, so new creations have appeared, like koronaparty, koronalia (student's pre-exam party), koronaferie (corona holidays). The government introduced a package of measures and called it tarcza, or shield, so people have been using that too. 



In Austria the government have launched a campaign - schau auf dich schau auf mich (look after me and I’ll look after you). They talk about a Maskenpflicht (obligation to wear a mask) and the schools even have a Corona-Ampel (Corona traffic-light), which changes the restrictions depending on the severity of the virus.

A new ‘German’ word is used a lot now: das Homeoffice (or Home-Office), plural: die Homeoffices, which, following the German tradition of taking an English word and giving it a totally different meaning in German to confuse native English speakers*, refers to working from home, which you do in your ‘Homeoffice’ (im Homeoffice arbeiten).

And whoever said the Germans don’t have a sense of humour? Advice published by the government of the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg suggests that you should treat your mask like underwear – don’t let anything hang out, change it regularly and, once worn, don’t leave it lying around on the table.


Eine Faustregel: Behandeln Sie die Masken wie Unterwäsche. Lassen Sie nichts raushängen, wechseln Sie sie regelmäßig, und legen sie getragene Masken nicht auf Tische oder Anrichten.  


*other examples include: Bodybag = messenger bag, Mobbing = bullying, Handy = mobile phone…



In Spanish we talk about mantener la distancia de seguridad (maintaining a safe distance), mantener la distancia social (maintaining social distancing) or el distanciamiento social (social distancing).

There is also some controversy with the grammatical gender of COVID, is it la COVID or el COVID in Spanish? The Real Academia de la Lengua Española (RAE) says: use the feminine article when talking about the illness (la enfermedad de la COVID) and the masculine when talking about the virus itself (el virus del COVID).




In Mandarin, we use 社交距離 which is a polite way to gently remind people to keep their distance.  It sounds cold just like it is in English, so people sometimes use it as joke to turn people away.

Another new term is 封城 which literally means seal the city. A better English translation is lockdown.

At the beginning of the epidemic, 居家健康自主管理 (self-voluntary health management) was used, but as time has passed, we now use 自主隔離 (self- isolation). And then we have 被隔離 (quarantine), which is compulsory and implemented by law.  If people are showing symptoms or under treatment, then it is definitely the latter.



In Italy, following media instructions, institutional discussions and virologists’ recommendations, new loanwords have been added to Italian vocabulary, like lock down, smart-working and droplets instead of using confinamento, lavoro da casa or goccioline.

We also have the same issue as in France and Spain, whereby the Accademia della Crusca says that COVID is feminine, since it should be considered as a disease (la malattia) but everyone uses the masculine version instead: il covid - il corona virus.  

It's also quite common to hear word like: distanziamento sociale, sintomi, quarantena and pandemia. Although the words mostly desired of this long period were pizza, caffè and mare (sea)!


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