I am heartily sick of the ‘pandemic’.  I, happily, have not been afflicted to this point by the disease itself, CoViD-19 or, so far as I know, by the virus that causes it, SARS-CoV 2.  I hope I am not without sympathy either for those who have become ill or for the millions of collateral victims of the political and medical response to the virus.  When I say that I am sick of the ‘pandemic’, I mean sick of the word, ‘pandemic’.  It strikes me as a classic example of pompous, puffed up vocabulary, of word inflation, of the gross overuse of a term.

The word itself is a compound of two Greek words.  The prefix ‘pan-’ means ‘universal’ or ‘all’, from the Greek word pan, meaning ‘all’.  The ‘pan-Hellenic games’ represented all or virtually all of the Greek cities.  ‘Pandemonium’ means all the demons have been unleashed.  The second part of the word, ‘-demic’, comes from the Greek noun demos, meaning ‘the people’ or ‘populace’ (‘democracy’ is the rule of the people).  Pandemic and related words were used in ancient Greek, but not usually in reference to illness.  Ancient uses of pandemic mainly had political or military reference.

The word is, nonetheless, a real Greek word which in English now mostly refers to illness.  A ‘pandemic’ is a universal, or virtually universal, illness.  According to the World Health Organization and the OED a ‘pandemic’ is defined mainly by very wide geographical spread:  ‘an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people’.  It is an illness that is not confined to a region but that appears ‘everywhere’.  The modern sense of the word emphasizes geographical diffusion rather than the percentage of people affected.  But this technical sense quickly seems beside the point as the word is endlessly repeated and reused and overused and worn down to tinny thinness.  Better to stick to the root sense:  a pandemic sickens everyone.  The bubonic plague was a real European pandemic:  when a third or half of the people die, that is a pandemic.

Now I know thousands of people.  I do not mean that I know of thousands of people, but that I know thousands of people by name and personal encounter.  Of those thousands of people whom I personally know precisely two at the time of this writing (in early May 2020) have had the sickness in question, one in the Antipodes and one in Virginia.  An illness that has stricken exactly two people of my fairly wide acquaintance seems hardly the universal malady, the omnipresent plague, the affliction upon all the people, suggested by ‘pandemic’.

There is a perfectly good, modest, and appropriate word for a contagious illness that has become widespread and damaging.  That word is ‘epidemic’.  But our society suffers not only from CoViD-19.  We also suffer from verbal pomposity, from inflated vocabulary, from a determination to use words, whose precise meaning is slightly uncertain to us, but that seem grander and more impressive and more exotic than the perfectly adequate and clear terms that our parents used or that we used a little earlier.  The pandemic from which we in truth suffer is inflated, grandiose, bloated words that sicken the whole of public discourse.

We do not use words appropriately or inappropriately.  No, we utilize words:  because why should a perfectly clear, common, short word be used when we can engage in the utilization of a vaguer, pompous, seven letter word.  The substitution is not just pompous, but also helps spoil the abused word.  ‘Utilize’ and ‘utilization’ do have appropriate uses, in reference to a kind of second order matter concerning the rate at which something is used or used up:  I use electricity, and the power company studies utilization rates.  When ‘utilize’ is not reserved for such restricted senses it becomes little more than a jumped up synonym for its shorter cousin, and a paraphrase has to be employed to cover the proper sense of ‘utilize’.

This kind of word inflation is not new.  H.L. Mencken’s invaluable The American Language (first edition, 1919; fourth edition, 1936) noted, for example, in his day the inflation of professional and trade terms.  Mencken roots that particular tendency in the fact that the average American ‘almost always…thinks that he would have adorned something far gaudier’ than his actual trade or station in life.  Since

…it is not always possible for him to escape, or even…to dream plausibly of escaping…he soothes himself by assuring himself that he belongs to a superior section of his craft, and very often invents a sonorous name to set himself off from the herd.[1]

‘Undertakers’ in Mencken’s day made themselves ‘morticians’ and ‘funeral-directors’ or even ‘embalming surgeons’.[2]   These terms are true cases of pompous verbal inflation, though it is undeniable that death and dying call forth a host of euphemisms of other sorts.  ‘Passed’, meaning ‘died’, is not inflated:  it is simple and flat, though odious.[3]  But death and dying and burial also attract inflated grandiosity as well as squeamish euphemism and avoidance.  A ‘cemetery’ becomes a ‘memorial garden’; a ‘body’ or ‘corpse’ becomes ‘the remains’, which eventually are not ‘buried’ but ‘interred’ (or ‘inurned’ for ‘cremains’).  The ‘funeral’ is out; the ‘memorial’ is in.

Mencken suggested that ‘mortician’ spawned parallel forms in other trades, such as ‘beautician’ and ‘cosmetician’.  School teachers now are ‘educators’.  Press agents are ‘publicists’.  Tree-trimmers are ‘tree-surgeons’.   The almost parodic ‘sanitation engineer’ is only one of a crowd of pseudo-engineers noted by Mencken.   And it hardly needs to be said that nobody now is a ‘servant’, though one still can find people who might be described as ‘help’ or ‘staff’.  And so it goes.

Mencken may be right about the root of such inflated terms in American, democratic self-regard.  The tendency seems relatively harmless.  What is not so harmless is the parallel tendency in the language as a whole, as suggested by the utilizeuse phenomenon.  This is not so harmless because it makes our language flabbier, less precise, and less useful.  Since ‘pandemic’ has been expended on CoViD-19, whatever will we call a real pandemic, when all around us sicken?  Since everything is now called a ‘war’ (with wars on drugs, on cancer, on inflation, on obesity, on prejudice, on crime, on hate, on poverty, on CoViD-19), what will we call a real war?  I suppose it will have to be qualified as ‘real’, since all the other wars are really phony or merely metaphorical.  Perhaps we will conclude that those other, phony wars, though not real wars, are ‘literally wars’:  with the proviso that ‘literally’ now means ‘not literally’.

Will the martial decision to keep school children home during the war on the pandemic make for better learning and better speaking and better writing?  Will they utilize their time well?  ‘Hopefully.’

[1] The American Language.  New York:  Knopf, 1962.  Fourth Edition.  Volume 1.  Page 284.

[2] Op. cit., p. 287.  A priest friend met an undertaker to make arrangements for the burial of a parishioner.  The undertaker introduced himself as ‘Mr. Smith, the funeral director’.  My priest friend rather rudely said, ‘I am Father Williams.  I am the funeral director.  You are the undertaker.’  

[3] Much more entertaining was the euphemism that my father claimed some of the nurses used in his hospital to avoid saying that a patient died:  instead ‘Mr. Smith [or Mrs. Jones] took a lethal exodus.’

3 thoughts on “Pandemics, puffery, and pomposity

  1. Yup. It’s right up there with iconic, apocalyptic and my favorite, event. As in, we are having a weather event or a worship event or whatever! When we don’t learn words, we can’t use words. But I guess it’s not any worse than the abbreviations everyone, except me and thee I guess, uses so easily: LOL, IMHO, BFF. I wish the educators, who used to be teachers, would teach our kids vocabulary and word usage. Like in the olden days, when I was in school.

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    1. On ‘event’. Around 1993 Father Irvin and I were privileged to hear the Divine Liturgy concelebrated at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Bulgaria by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Bulgarian Patriarch. Father Irvin later sent a check to the Phanar saying what a joy that Liturgy was. He received a letter from, if memory serves, the Metropolitan of Philadelphia (the original Philadelphia) thanking him for the gift to his All-Holiness and hoping that we enjoyed our ‘worship experience’ in Bulgaria.

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