Meaning Well: Spreading Metaphors During a Pandemic

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By Erik Norbie

Having read Susan Sontag’s influential books Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, I can’t help but view newly minted medical idioms and shortcuts of healthcare parlance with suspicion. In her texts, Sontag provides no shortage of evidence for the damage that metaphors have wrought. From the punitive diseases in the Illiad and the Odyssey to the moralizing views of religious texts and depictions of the sick in Romantic literature, Sontag traces the evolution of the problematic language of illness. In particular, she explores the language of victimization, violence, and contamination that has created and reinforced harmful stereotypes and prejudices about tuberculosis, cancer, and AIDS.

During the current pandemic, Sontag’s work has seemed especially resonant. As the coronavirus has swept across the country, a surge of linguistic inventions and novel metaphors has followed in its wake. Phrases like ‘Flatten the curve,’ ‘Social distancing,’ and ‘#ShareASquare’ (a campaign promoted by Cottonelle to encourage those with a few extra roles of toilet paper to be neighborly to those without) have become common to everyday discourse.

These neologisms and creative phrases, while not exactly metaphors per se, have become metaphors broadly—for collective action—for communicating the idea that as individuals we can take measures to benefit others and to slow the spread and impact of the novel coronavirus (wearing a face mask, maintaining a physical distance, not hoarding supplies).

There has also been a deluge of language and phrases that I think Sontag would have no trouble citing as evidence in her earlier arguments. However, what Sontag could not have predicted in the 1970’s, is the communal experience of the last few months on a global scale, and the means by which we have rapidly shared this experience via tweets , Instagram posts, and Facebook feeds. ‘Flatten the curve’ and ‘Social distancing’ have not only entered the dialogue of Americans, these phrases have at once become common to nearly every country. Glancing through news reports in languages that I don’t understand, I can still recognize these concepts.

While Sontag’s keen ear for the risks that metaphors pose remains close at hand, this is a unique moment in which the language of collective action requires little translation. A reminder of how figures of speech can bridge our fears and offer a common dialogue that can keep pace with the virus—a dialogue from which we can move forward together in our search for effective treatments.

Photo credit: "Speech bubbles at Erg" by Marc Wathieu is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.