Covid-19, cocooning, new normal – 10 phrases that defined 2020

2020 was filled with expressions that we never, ever want to hear again

Covid-19: Originally known simply as the coronavirus, this was given the name Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on February 11th, 2020. The co stands for coronavirus, the vi for virus and the d for disease. The number is the year in which it originated although it was only identified on New Year's Eve 2019. It was not, as Simon Harris or US president Donald Trump stated, the 19th manifestation of the coronavirus. Heaven help us had it been.

Its official name is SARS-CoV-2 standing for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2. The 2 is to distinguish it from the previous incarnation of coronavirus through the SARS pandemic of 2003. In 2020 there were almost 18,000 mentions of Covid-19 on The Irish Times website. No story has dominated the headlines as much since the second World War.

New normal: The portmanteau phrase used to describe the bonkers new existence we have lived in for the last nine months. Working from home, Zoom calls, seeing elderly relatives through Perspex screens, shuttered pubs and restaurants all became part of the "new normal" until the phrase itself became so old and hackneyed that we needed a new phrase to describe the new normal. In 2021 will be living in the "post-new normal" world?

Cocooning: The word was first coined in the 1980s for those with apocalyptic inclinations who were stocking their basements with VCRs, tins of beans and bottled water while awaiting the nuclear holocaust. It was resurrected in 2020 when people over the age of 70 and those under that age with serious underlying conditions were told by then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in March to "cocoon".


This meant avoiding other people, literally and figuratively, like the plague. People over that age were told to stay indoors, have their shopping delivered and not venture out. Some like the former RTÉ correspondent Charlie Bird baulked at the restrictions; others were surprised when it was revealed that cocooning was advisory not mandatory.

Exponential growth: There have been many misused phrases in 2020. This was one of them. The word exponential means having an exponent or to the power of. Hence if two people have Covid-19 today and four have it tomorrow and eight the following day, it's exponential growth, but it only works for low numbers. If there are 100 cases today and 200 tomorrow, growth isn't exponential. It would need 10,000 cases to make growth exponential.The Covid-19 pandemic has been bad, but not that bad.

Social distancing: In 2020 normal human interactions became occasions of peril and sometimes of sin. Many of us turned into the modern-day equivalent of the old parish priest beating courting couples out of the bushes. Smartphones were the valleys of the squinting windows for the 21st century. We became suspicious of each other's physical presence.

The definition of social distancing was keeping two metres apart from each other which meant no crowds and therefore no sporting events, no concerts, no plays, poetry readings, conferences, masses and for six months of the year – no school. Being sociable in 2020 could lead to a bout of Covid-shaming.

Flattening the curve: In 2020 we all became coronabores forever obsessing about the daily figures and the trends that followed. From the beginning we were all told to flatten the curve. The US Control of Disease Centre (CDC) defines the curve as a "visual display of the onset of illness among cases associated with an outbreak". Without restrictions the Covid-19 growth curve looks like a Coke Mentos rocket. With restrictions it looked more like a Cavan drumlin.

Face coverings: Masks mostly, but also visors. Masks are now so ubiquitous that it is hard to remember the time when the jury was out on them. At the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation advised against them on the basis that they would create a false sense of security and were ineffective unless worn properly.

In June, the WHO changed its stance citing new research. "WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments," its director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said then. Masks were made mandatory on public transport in Ireland in July and in shops a month later.

R-rate: R stands for reproduction. This is the rate at which the virus reproduces itself. Also known as R-nought if you want to sound vaguely knowledgeable about it. The best definition of it is in the 2011 film Contagion starring Kate Winslet which presciently predicted in a future global pandemic. Life followed art with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The virus, if left unchecked, will have a reproduction rate of three meaning one infected person passes it on to three others. A R-rate above 1 means, on average, a person with the disease is infecting at least one other person and the disease is spreading rapidly in the community, a R-rate below 1 means incidences of the disease are decreasing.

Community transmission: Of all the ways in which Covid-19 can spread itself, community transmission was the most worrying for health professionals. Community transmission means nobody knows how somebody got the disease.

Contract Tracing: Throughout 2020 millions of people got the tap on the proverbial shoulder from healthcare professionals to tell them they were a "close contact" of someone with Covid-19. Some people were surprised that the bar was quite high to be a close contact. You have to spend more than 15 minutes of face-to-face contact within two metres of someone who has Covid-19, indoors or outdoors. The chances of catching Covid-19 in an outdoor setting is 18 times less than in it is indoors.

Wet pub: There were many surprises in 2020. One of them was the emergence of the phrase "wet pub". Irish people have been frequenting pubs all their lives blissfully unaware of this thing called a "wet pub". A wet pub, as opposed to a dry pub, surely a contradiction in terms, is a food that does not serve food. They had a terrible time in 2020. Dublin "wet pubs" have been closed since March 12th. On several occasions they were looking at opening up only to be thwarted by a rise in cases and another lockdown. Wet pubs in rural Ireland opened on September 21st only to be shut again in early October.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times