Covid-19, cocooning, lockdown: the frequency of pandemic words in reporting

Irish Times analysis shows frequency with which certain words have been embraced sinec January

Think of the words and phrases that came to frame the 2008 recession: “burn the bondholders”, “financial crisis”, “bailout”. With the passage of time moments in history are captured and frozen in language forever.

In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, that language is taking root literally as we speak. “Flatten the curve” and “social distancing” quickly established themselves as early phrases, anchoring an event in history.

Over the weeks and months, as the crisis developed and came to impact day-to-day life in more profound ways, it has taken over everything from how we behave to how we converse. More and more words and phrases became a central part of our vernacular as we struggled to process our new reality.

“Lockdown”, “cocooning”, “isolation” - daily conversations enforced our new vocabulary.


Members of the Government and public health experts have been increasingly reliant on such language to drive home the importance of curtailing the spread of the virus. Their use of this language, the media’s reporting of their comments, and society’s repetition of it are all conspiring to cement it into our popular understanding.

Here, The Irish Times has attempted to capture the frequency with which we have embraced certain words and phrases, at least in our reporting of the pandemic and its effects on Irish and global life.

Our data runs from the beginning of the year to April 29th and uses a simple graph to present how often a word has appeared in print on any one day. Some statistical manipulation is used for the sake of accuracy - root forms of words have been sought out to capture every variation. For example “isolat” will find both “isolate” and “isolating”. Body text is mined but headlines are not.

With simple technology and clear presentation, we can gain some insight into how we consider a global health crisis through language.