The COVID pandemic is still with us—remember when it was going to “go away in April with the heat”?—and so are the new words it’s inspiring. This is my fourth installment of novel coronacoinages; scroll to the bottom for links to related posts.
This month’s book recommendation is Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, by Anonymous. Duchess Goldblatt—Her Grace or DG to her thousands of Twitter followers, myself included—has been an indelible, wholly invented presence on Twitter for some eight years. Her avatar is a 1633 portrait by Frans Hals, and her distinctive voice—firm yet loving, barmy yet authoritative, warm yet tinged with acid—has inspired endless speculation about her “real” identity. You won’t learn that secret from this memoir, but you will learn how the anonymous author (now a woman of perhaps middle age) came to create her, during a terrible period in her life during which she lost her marriage, her house, her job, and most of her friends. The Duchess became her 81-year-old alter ego: an escape from loneliness and an outlet for her considerable writing talent. The book combines memoir with selected DG tweets, and if you choose the audiobook—try your local library system—you’ll enjoy not just the primary narration by Gabra Zackman but also the wonderful actress J. Smith Cameron reading the tweets and singer/songwriter/actor Lyle Lovett reading the Lyle Lovett parts. (Lovett and Her Grace have a mutual admiration society, and if only DG would deign to follow me back on Twitter we could make it a threesome.)
Writers can be a lot of fun at parties, but word to the wise: Keep an eye on your good memories. They’ll strip them down for parts.
It’s been almost four months—four months—since I first wrote about the new words emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. Through surges and spikes and reopenings and retreats, the indomitable spirit of wordy invention soldiers on. Here are some coronacoinages I’ve noticed recently. Let me know if I’ve overlooked any of your favorites.
I wrote last month about Schulz’s excellent pieces for the New Yorker, and I’m here to tell you that Being Wrong is every bit as well researched, witty, and graceful. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m fascinated by failure, but hey—everyone has a story to tell about wrongness petty or vast. Schulz’s catalog of errors includes explorers undone by mirages, buyers beset by remorse, the famous gorilla-on-the-basketball-court experiment, the impossibility of saying “I am wrong” (as opposed to “I was wrong”), and the ’Cuz It’s True Constraint (a name I love). She dips into cognitive psychology, history, philosophy, aesthetics, and religion; Newsweek called the book “intellectualism made fun!” and it is.
I listened to the audiobook, and immediately discovered that I’d been wrong for ages about the pronunciation of the author’s last name. It rhymes with pools, not cults.
There ought to be a word for “a familiar phenomenon you didn’t know had a name.” I’d been thinking about the concept for a few weeks, ever since two friends, on separate occasions, expressed puzzlement over the word paywall. Sure, they’d encountered subscriber-only websites or articles. But they hadn’t known there was a special word to describe the “pay or leave” block. (For the record, paywall has been documented in print since at least 2004, according to the OED. It was coined in imitation of firewall.)
I had my own “There’s a word for that?” moment last week when my copyeditor pal Andy Behr asked me whether I’d heard of scrollytelling, a word that had come up in a staff meeting she’d attended (virtually, of course). “I think it has something to do with those fancy online stories where nifty bells and whistles unfold as you scroll down,” Andy said.
A facsimile of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (408 BCE - 318 CE). Image via Facsimile Editions
This month’s book recommendation is The Plague and I, published by Betty MacDonald in 1948. The book is a lightly fictionalized account of MacDonald’s nine-month stay in a Seattle tuberculosis sanatorium in the late 1930s, when TB was known as “the white plague”; there were no effective vaccines; and treatment entailed rigorous bedrest, hearty meals, and an occasional session of artificial pneumothorax, in which gas was injected into the pleural cavity. Survival was far from certain and recovery times were long: many of MacDonald’s fellow inpatients remained at the sanatorium for years.
Sounds grim, right? Here’s the thing: it’s a hoot. MacDonald is sadly overlooked now—she died in 1958—but she was one of the foremost comic writers of her era, and The Plague and I is sharply observed, un-self-pitying, and downright chipper. (One of the chapters is titled “I’m Cold and So Is the Attitude of the Staff.”) I guarantee it will make you feel much more upbeat about our own current predicament.
Too many words are being invented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic for me to pick just one this week. Thus this update of my March 16 post, which covered quarantini, coronials, coronadouche, and other coinages, some of which have already slipped out of usage.
In my latest column for the Visual Thesaurus I look at some new words—thoughtful, creative, even playful—that have been coined in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve written about some of these words here on the blog; the column updates the list to include additional terms, from acronyms like CARES to new compounds like Zoom-bombing.
Access to my column is restricted to subscribers for three months (and if you want to read more articles like this one, please subscribe). Here’s an excerpt:
This month’s book recommendation is I Like to Watch (2019), by the Pulitzer Prize–winning television critic Emily Nussbaum. The book collects a decade’s worth of Nussbaum’s reviews and essays for the New Yorker and other publications, including one written especially for the book. Nussbaum is such a good writer that she made me care about shows that hadn’t appealed to me (I’ve watched exactly one episode each, for example, of “The Sopranos,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Lost”). And she made me care even more deeply about subjects I was already drawn to, like the complicated career of Joan Rivers and the way the 2016 presidential election made “jokes” unfunny. (You can read the jokes essay—one of the best pieces of writing to come out of that twisted season—here.)
How’s everyone doing? Self-quarantining? Social distancing? Catching up on podcasts/the New Yorker/housecleaning? Drinking quarantinis and coronaritas while awaiting the #Coronapocalypse?
One option for a quarantini, via Marilyn Starkloff. Coronarita recipes using Corona brand beer have been around for several years; the 2020 pandemic version is here. This Podcast Will Kill Youtweeted about quarantini and placeborita cocktails even earlier, on February 4.
Me? I’m fine; thanks for asking. I’m happy to live in California, where we have a mensch for a governor. (Compare and contrast.) And I’m cheered by the inventive linguistic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, examples of which I bring you today.
(Thanks to Ben Zimmer for coining #coronacoinages. I’m winging it with some of the definitions; I welcome refinements and additions in the comments.)