Language is a Virus

“Language is a virus from outer space. The word has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host,” says William Burroughs. He proposes a theory of “the unrecognized virus” in his 1962 novel The Ticket That Exploded. He suggests, “A virus operates autonomously, without human intervention. It attaches itself to a host and feeds off of it, growing and spreading from host to host.”1

It’s a good departure point for a discussion of Language in the Age of COVID-19. New terms are added to our speech almost daily. We must consider the broader implications of our word choices to limit narratives that could spread harmful falsehoods. We must understand the concept of “data voids” and how they are used to spread disinformation quickly on the internet with the invention of new terms. “COVID-19 neologisms are being coined quicker than ever,”2 writes Robert Lawson. He says new words like “covidiot”3 (someone ignoring public health advice), “Blursday”4 (an unspecified day because of lockdown’s disorientating effect on time) “zoombombing”5 (hijacking a Zoom video call), and “quaranteams”6 (online teams created during lockdown) have recently popped up. Additionally, the rampant use of the “war metaphor” concerning COVID-19 prompts several critics to take issue.

Priscilla Wald notes in her book Contagious, “scientific and mainstream media discussions of the epidemic” contribute to developing the outbreak narrative.7 She argues that “the danger…lies not in scientific research or epidemiological investigation per se, but in stories, in the conventions of representation that infuse the images, phrases, and narratives through which we make sense of the world.”8

Our primary mission as students of Public Texts is to examine the use of words to tell stories that don’t mislead or unintentionally damage. These are historic times. This technological juncture is an invitation to rethink our language. Confucius (551–479 BC) believed “that when words go wrong, there is no limit to what else may go wrong with them; for this reason, ‘the civilized person is anything but casual in what he says.’”9 A lot has changed since Confucius’ time. Texts are embedded in our physical lives now; they are multi-layered and they function and operate through subtle variations of meaning. A rogue metaphor could become a linguistic virus super-spreader for negative connotations. Consider how recent thinkers challenge the word “immunity.” Some claim it distorts our view of populations as “interdependent organisms interacting within a closed environment.”10 It’s the adjustment to each other’s germs that mark us.


Roberto Esposito is a philosopher whose work on biopolitics over the last twenty years explored concepts around “immunization as a discourse of the self and state.”11 He builds on the idea of how both self and state relate to foreign bodies and borders. Along with fellow Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, Esposito wants to develop an “affirmative biopolitics.”12 It’s an attempt to reorganize the thought that has made politics and medicine “mutually linked”13 ostensibly politicizing medicine as it medicalizes politics. Esposito says, “politics has become medicalized, treating the citizen as a patient in need of perpetual care and turning social deviance into an epidemic disruption to be treated or suppressed.”14 Under such politics, an official diagnosis of disease or illness is enough to put an “inconvenient” citizen away. Affirmative Biopolitics would focus on “making medicine affordable or giving medications free of charge, maintaining comfortable living conditions for the population…”15 Esposito points to the failure of the word “immunity” to fully describe the paradox of how it functions “homoeopathically”— by “incorporating within the body exactly the foreign elements and external entity that threaten its existence.”16 It is, in fact, our own body that produces its equilibrium with the natural world by a perfunctory introduction to the disease.

In her book On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss writes that the use of the term immunity in the context of disease came after “it was used in the context of law to describe an exemption from service or duty.”17 She describes the relationship between vaccination and the government. For example, in the nineteenth century, British anti-vaccinators compared their cause to the Irish Home Rule movement, conflating the individual body with national governance.18 Biss notes that immunology historian Anne-Marie Moulin suggests that it was “linguistic versatility” that propelled the term immune system’s quick adoption. “Where the machine with its distinct components was once the most available metaphor for the body, we now tend to think of the body as a complex system—a sensitive, nonlinear field with elaborate regulatory mechanisms.”19

According to Biss, thinking of viruses as “invaders” limits our understanding of how the immune system works. An infectious disease expert thoroughly explained to her “how pathogens ‘tutor’ the immune system.” Instead of “fighting” an illness that “can make you feel under siege and stressed, under an educational frame, your body learns how to produce antibodies.”20 “Naive” is the technical term for immune systems waiting to be “taught.” This reframing of understanding decreases stress. Biss now attempts to use educational metaphors to describe illnesses. She says it has a “Different psychological posture; it changes your relationship to the disease. It happens at a level that is not conscious.” Biss likes to compare immunity to a public square, where everybody has to participate. Being anti-social is the manifestation of privilege. In a New York Public Radio podcast, she was vehement that diseases have no nationality, no politics—they have no intent, nothing can be negotiated, there will be no truce. War metaphors don’t translate to reality. She says, “This is a teachable moment.”21

Stories and Data Voids

Movie critic Roger Ebert praises Contagion for dismantling anti-vaccine “hogwash” in his 2011 review. Nonetheless, he criticizes the film for not explaining more clearly that viruses as a life form are “not hostile to us, but concerned with other life forms only as its means of survival.”22 Ebert quotes Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene for explaining that from “the viewpoint of a gene: bodies are merely steppingstones on their journey through time.”23 This is an attempt to tell a different story.

“Stories are the foundation of our social world.” According to cultural philosopher Charles Eisenstein, “Stories help us structure what we think of the world and how we make sense of our existence.”24 The breakdown of our familiar story precipitated by the COVID-19 disruption is contributing to conspiracy theories and intense polarization. Eisenstein says it’s because now the tendency is to jump to another explanation “or maybe just hold all the more tightly to the way things were and exclude anything that would impinge on that.”25 It is the very lack of information that is driving the spread of disinformation. It is the “panicked information- seekers” who are more likely to fall for that disinformation harder and faster “rather than wait in uncertainty.”26

Our collective transition from Normal to New Normal is an “unravelling” to use Eisenstein’s word. This Unravelling could give hope to those who are perhaps thinking, “things weren’t so good in the Old Normal anyway; maybe we can change it for the better in the New.” Maybe if we can identify the language that subtly influences the way we negatively think and act, there could be a chance we can “change the world” for the better. As the globe isolates more in the era of “Fake News,” and the frequency of virtual connections increases due to the pandemic, the critical examination of communication is vital.

In their 2017 report called Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online, researchers unequivocally state that “The spread of false or misleading information is having real and negative effects on the public consumption of news.”27 It is the internet subcultures who manipulate news frames and propagate ideas. “Attention hacking” techniques deployed by far- right groups spread their ideas through “strategic use of social media, memes, and bots and by targeting journalists, bloggers, and influencers to help spread content.”28 Media’s reliance on metrics has employed algorithms to position clickbait journalism at the top automatically. Public distrust of the mainstream has reached a breaking point.

With more of the globe stuck at home and connected through social media because of social restrictions, keyword searches for new words explode in time with each “breaking story.” If there is a series of breaking news, like in the first weeks of the pandemic, it creates a “data void.” Search engine data voids are just waiting to be topped up with information. Fact-checking takes a while. This is how manipulators can jump in to supply false data with a newly coined word. On top of that, “search-adjacent recommendation systems like ‘auto-fill’ and trending topics,”29 can be manipulated to offer alternative pathways. It’s essential to know how media and language work together to deploy strategies to minimize metaphors’ damage. In her essay, Susan Sontag urges that metaphors can be “retired” and that abstaining from using them is not merely enough. “They have to be exposed, criticized, belaboured, used up.”30 Sontag supplies the words Left and Right as her examples. These words describe a given political position, but its origins can be traced back to the French Revolution “to the seating arrangements of the National Assembly in 1789.”31

“Modern medical thinking could be said to begin when the gross military metaphor becomes specific…with the advent of a new kind of scrutiny…” It was technology, through the microscope, that supplied a more precise comprehension. Sontag explains. It’s when the target became known that “visible organisms caused illnesses…”32 There is a new kind of scrutiny perhaps in our recent obsession with the use of the word “code,”33 and its variants (“decode”) which positions technological precision as the ideal. Those who can obtain and control the software and hardware have all the power. Statistics and metrics are the latest to become legitimate social power tools.

Yet, for which of our great pandemics will we willingly and quickly change our world? Racism? Child sexual abuse? Cancer? Alcoholism? Obesity? Depression? There is no known single identifiable pathogen to cause them even if it affects millions of people, says Charles Eisenstein. COVID-19, on the other hand, is traceable under a microscope. It promises to be a decipherable code. Mobilization happens when there is a culprit to combat. We can militarize our language to make it actionable. The war-metaphor provides compelling imagery. The enemy — a virus, the strategy — “flatten the curve,” and “save the economy,” the frontline warriors — health-care personnel, people isolating at home — the home-front, the people breaking the social-distancing rules — traitors and deserters.34 Roberto Esposito reminds us that the expression of social-distancing is paradoxical. “Distancing cannot be social, and distancing always produces effects of de-socialization and a reduction of communal forms of life.”35

COVID-19 War Metaphors

Battle analogies are ill-suited for telling people what not to do. “War metaphors call for mobilization, for action, for doing something,” linguist Veronika Koller told the Atlantic.36 The challenge is to ask everyone to do nothing. “The spectre of ‘war,’ moreover, has prompted unhelpful forms of panic, cleaning out store shelves and — in the United States — leading to a troubling rush for guns.”37 The rhetoric around war-metaphors urge a kind of alert for an “invisible enemy,” and it could result in unintended drastic consequences to social groups. “These include public shaming and demonization of minorities, as has occurred during past pandemics when ‘invisible’ enemies have been transformed into visible targets.”38 The term “Boomer Remover” creates a narrative about age groups. “Kung flu,”39 is one of President Trump’s more clever racist phrases. This play on the phrase “Kung Fu” guarantees a longer “shelf-life” in the public imagination. Coronavirus terminology has entered the public quickly through its verbal play and humour. English professor Ronald Carter argues that inventive language is not just ornamental but practical.40 However, in malicious hands, “quotable quotes” can be used to harm.

“Although Trump called himself a wartime president, it is important to remember that this is not actually a war,” says Benjamin Bates. In his rapid analysis of President Trump’s speech, he calls to “reject WAR as a metaphor for understanding SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.” Instead, he wants to work on alternative metaphors to “shape public understanding.”41 The words Victory, Defeat, Enemy, Weapons, Defences, Battleground, and Attacks all come under the category of war-metaphors. These are called “entailments” by G. Lakoff and his colleagues in their 1991 paper Master Metaphor List.42 These related words trigger in the listener a series of unconscious associations. “Warlike language has been part of our speech for so long, it usually goes unnoticed… It sounds all too familiar to anyone who’s been following the news of coronavirus, which The New York Times first painted as a “mystery”43 illness in January, something to “combat”44 in February, and an “all-out war”45 in March (2020).”46 From a televised address to the nation, President Macron of France conflated language around COVID-19 with military action. He said,” ‘We are in a war,’ in which ‘nothing should divert us’ from fighting an ‘invisible enemy.’”47 Other leaders from different parties worldwide are using militarized language; New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said “This is war,” at a press conference to describe the outbreak.48 On March 17, 2020, @realDonaldTrump tweeted, “The world is at war with a hidden enemy. WE WILL WIN!”49 The Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization said “We are at war with a virus that threatens to tear us apart.”50 The United Nations blog described health care workers as “The frontline soldiers.”51

The use of the war metaphor could backfire on doctors. Unifying the public behind their health workers as “heroes” could make them face moral dilemmas with no offer of medals but deserters are still “shot” with stigma. “Their obligation to care for patients may conflict with their obligation to keep themselves well to continue caring for patients and their obligation to care for and protect their own family.”52 By extending the label of “Front-line Worker” to include cleaners, grocery store clerks, and fast-food soldiers, it creates tremendous social pressure. Benjamin Bates says, “In addition to reshaping thought, structural metaphors reshape action.”53 Language shapes our goals, shapes our decisions, and determine the outcome of our lives.

Sontag warns that “The military metaphor…provides a persuasive justification for the authoritarian rule…”54 Here, philosopher Giorgio Agamben picks up on Sontag’s conclusion by saying, “In times of emergency…modern state power [resorts] to the ‘state of exception ‘[resulting in] unmediated power.”55 An explosion of special laws have been fast-tracked to give governments around the world more power. Writer Van den Berge, in his essay, cautions that “…the imagined war against the virus may ultimately result in the continued use of harmful technologies that curtail political life and restrict our freedom.”56

Classmate Eli Hansen recounts the ways Barcelona handled the initial global lockdown where he stayed for the summer. The phrase “Zone of Control” kept being repeated. The civil guard patrolled the city. A NATO warship docked itself on the pier; helicopters patrolled from the sky. The pandemic was clearly militarized from the very beginning. Since returning to Canada, Eli had seen nothing comparable to the federal response in Spain.“It looked closer to fighting ‘terrorism’ than a disease,” he says.57 Using thriller genre conventions to frame the disease outbreak is common to make the situation seem direr. COVID-19 has updated the Patient Zero trope to “Party Zero,” where the scapegoat has become entire groups and super-spreader events like weddings and funerals — these are group rituals at the heart of humanities’ core. Contact tracing communities for infection can easily divide along racial and class lines. The media reporting could sow further social polarization. Esposito defines the word “immunity” as the etymological opposite of the word “community.”58 The possible impact of using the phrase “community spread” to divide an already increasingly isolated global population could be profound. Concepts around bubbles, barriers and borders are just some to be examined. Language needs constant maintenance and regular check-ups.

“There are times when talk about language expands and acquires a new urgency, leading to dramatic changes in the way we think about it,” says Ken Hischkop. He studied the “linguistic turn” made by Europe’s intellectuals from 1890 to 1950. Thinkers like Wittgenstein and Derrida reorganized academic fields when they “argued for a new understanding of language itself.”59 In philosophy, linguistics, literary criticism, anthropology, and political theory, the results were dramatic and long-lasting. It was language philosopher Richard Rorty who claimed, “Many or all philosophical problems can be solved (or dissolved) by paying closer attention to language, either by reforming language or by understanding the everyday language that we presently use better.”60 Right now, the language around COVID-19 requires our utmost attention. According to Contagious writer Patricia Wald “The outbreak narrative affects which social structure and whose beliefs, poverty, prejudices, and personalities become the focus of analysis… Failing to take the story into account…” she says is a risk.61

Linguist Veronika Koller of Lancaster University has an idea. She is asking the public to contribute non-war metaphors to a Twitter repository using the #ReframeCovid hashtag62 and compiling them in a website.63 There is a movement to call the pandemic a “Global Public Health Emergency” instead of “War.” Emergencies frame the situation differently—they encourage us to help each other. In contrast, war language motivates us to fight. The pandemic has been called, among other things, “World War III.”64 On Fox News, the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams is quoted as saying, “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment…”65 On the other hand, there is a movement toward undertaking this health challenge through words of peace, healing, and solidarity. “We don’t need weapons, we don’t need bombs,” says the ambassador to Washington, Santiago Cabanas, “We need solidarity and compassion.”66

“America needs the language of healing right now,” says Will Bunch, “Not Operation Overlord, nor do we need another Churchill, or to pin down the virus on the sands of Omaha Beach..”67 Writer Arundhati Roy pens an impassioned plea in the Financial Times. “The pandemic is a portal,” she says, “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world…”68 Professor Christine Schwöbel-Patel of the University of Warwick expressed it plainly, “Amid this public health emergency, we must refuse the normalization of racism, patriarchy, and (state monopoly) capitalism. We must refuse recruitment for ethnonationalism. We must instead celebrate moments of mutual support and care across borders without reverting to ‘war talk.’”69

The safety of our communities are at risk. Using language that evokes our shared values foster solidarity with each other. Compounded with the increased isolation and connection to social media, the rise of disinformation often comes when new terms take advantage of “data voids.” COVID-19 is the first global health crisis of Web 2.0 and social media. The first SARS outbreak happened in a world before the internet had utterly embedded itself into our everyday lives. The effects of rethinking and reframing the ways we speak will ripple outward quickly and hopefully cause real change in our collective global experience. With the vigilant inspection of our daily vocabulary, perhaps we can give our language a proper tune-up and prevent a different kind of epidemic from starting.



  1. Bernardo Attias, “Salon: Language is a Virus from Outer Space,” Spectra, https://
  2. Robert Lawson, “Coronavirus has led to an explosion of new words and phrases – and that helps us cope,” The Conversation, 28 April 2020,
  3. The Economist, “Do you speak corona? A guide to cover-19 slang,” 8 April 2020,
  4. Heidi Pitlor, “Days Without Name: On Time in the Time of Coronavirus,” Literary Hub, 3 April 2020,
  5. BBC News, “‘Zoombombing’ targeted with new version of app,” 23 April 2020,
  6. Saba Hamedy, “People are ditching their homes and joining their friends to avoid isolation. It’s called quaranteaming,” CNN, 17 April 2020,
  7. Priscilla Wald “Contagious,” (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008) 214.
  8. Wald 262.
  9. Simon W. Blackburn, “Philosophy of Language,’” Encyclopedia Britannica, 15 June 2017,
  10. Priscilla Wald “Contagious,” (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008) 49.
  11. Michael A. Peters, & Tina Besley, “Biopolitics, Conspiracy and the Immuno-State: an Evolving Global Politico-Genetic Complex,” Educational Philosophy and Theory, (Taylor & Francis, 2020) 3.
  12. Peters & Besley 3.
  13. Peters & Besley 3.
  14. Tim Christiaens and Stijn De Cauwer, “The Biopolitics of Immunity in Times of COVID-19: An Interview with Roberto Esposito,” Antipode Online, 16 Jun 2020,
  15. Christiaens and De Cauwer.
  16. Roberto Esposito, “Immunitas: the Protection and Negation of Life,” (Polity Press, 2011) 5.
  17. Eula Biss, “On Immunity: An Inoculation,” (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014) 121.
  18. Biss 127.
  19. Biss 134
  20. Kate Yoder, “No More ‘war on coronavirus:’ In search of better ways to talk about a pandemic,” Grist, 21 April 2020,
  21. Brooke Gladstone, “A Different way of Thinking About the Coronavirus,” Interview with Eula Biss, On the Media, WNYC Studios, New York Public Radio, 3 April 2020, https://
  22. Roger Ebert. “Just stand over there and wave,” 7 September 2011. https://
  23. Ebert.
  24. Charles Eisenstein, “Story, Mindset, Spirituality and Activism,” Ecology & Research, The Embodiment Conference, 2018,,-mindset,-spirituality-and-activism-03ab01.
  25. Charles Eisenstein, “Human Body, Earth Body, and the Body Politic,” Come Home To Your Body, The Embodiment Conference, 2020,
  26. Erin McAweeney, “Who Benefits from Health Misinformation?” Data & Society,
  27. Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis, “Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online,” Data & Society Report 15 May 2017,
  28. Marwick and Lewis.
  29. Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd, “Data Voids: Where Missing Data Can Easily Be Exploited,” Data & Society,
  30. Susan Sontag, “AIDS and its Metaphors,” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989) 94.
  31. Sontag 94.
  32. Sontag 9.
  33. Suggestion by Kelly McGuire, Imagining Immunity class, Trent University, Zoom meeting, 21 October 2020
  34. Costanza Musu, “War metaphors used for COVID-19 are compelling but also dangerous,” The Conversation, 8 April 2020,
  35. Tim Christiaens and Stijn De Cauwer, “The Biopolitics of Immunity in Times of COVID-19: An Interview with Roberto Esposito,” Antipode Online, 16 Jun 2020,
  36. Yasmeen Serhan, “The Case Against Waging ‘War’ on the Coronavirus,” The Atlantic, 31 March 2020,
  37. Ishaan Tharoor, “Are we at ‘war’ with coronavirus?” The Washington Post, 6 April 2020,
  38. Lucy Taksa, “Fighting Words: how war metaphors can trigger racism,” The Lighthouse, Macquarie University, Sydney Australia, 7 April 2020,
  39. BBC News, “President Trump calls coronavirus ‘kung flu,’” 24 June 2020,
  40. Ronald Carter, “Common language: corpus, creativity and cognition,” Language and Literature: International Journal of Stylistics, Pala, Sage Journals, 1 October 1999,
  41. BR Bates, “The (In)Appropriateness of the WAR Metaphor in Response to SARS- CoV-2: A Rapid Analysis of Donald J. Trump’s Rhetoric,” Frontiers in Communication 5:50. doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2020.00050.
  42. George Lakoff, Jane Espenson, and Adele Goldberg, “Master Metaphor List” Second Draft Copy, 1989,
  43. Sui-Lee Wee and Vivian Wang, “China Grapples With Mystery Pneumonia-Like Illness,” The New York Times, 6 January 2020,
  44. Jesse McKinley, Luis Ferré-Sadurni and Christina Goldbaum, “Cuomo Pledges $40 Million to Combat Coronavirus,” The New York Times, 28 February 2020, https://
  45. Donald G. McNeil Jr., “Inside China’s All-Out War on Coronavirus,” The New York Times, 14 April 2020,
  46. Kate Yoder, “Is waging ‘war’ the only way to take on coronavirus?” Grist, 15 April 2020,
  47. Lukas van den Berge, “Biopolitics and the Coronavirus: Foucault, Agamben, Žižek,” The Netherands Journal of Legal Philosophy, Vol. 49, No. 1, (2020) 5, accessed October 20, 2020, SSRN:
  48. Pilar Melendez, “‘This is a War:’ Cuomo Pleads for Help from Doctors Across U.S. as Coronavirus Death Toll Surges,” Daily Beast, 30 March 2020,
  49. Donald J. Trump, Twitter, 17 March 2020
  50. Bill Chappell, “‘We Are At War,’ WHO Head Says Warning Millions Could Die From COVID-19,” NPR, 26 March 2020,
  51. Siddharth Chatterjee & Mutahi Kagwe, “Health workers are the frontline soldiers against COVID-19. Let’s protect them,” Africa Renewal, 24 March 2020,
  52. David Isaacs and Anne Priesz, “COVID-19 and the metaphor of war,” Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, 6 October 2020,
  53. BR Bates, “The (In)Appropriateness of the WAR Metaphor in Response to SARS- CoV-2: A Rapid Analysis of Donald J. Trump’s Rhetoric,” Frontiers in Communication 5:50. doi: 10.3389/fcomm.2020.00050.
  54. Susan Sontag, “AIDS and its Metaphors,” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989) 94.
  55. Lukas van den Berge, “Biopolitics and the Coronavirus: Foucault, Agamben, Žižek,” The Netherands Journal of Legal Philosophy, Vol. 49, No. 1, (2020) 5, accessed October 20, 2020, SSRN:
  56. van den Berge.
  57. Eli Hansen, Imagining Immunity class, Trent University, Zoom meeting, 21 October 2020
  58. Ed Cohen, “A Body Worth Defending,” (Duke University Press, 2009) 29,
  59. Ken Hirschkop “Linguistic Turns, 1890-1950,” (Oxford University Press, 2019) 1.
  60. Richard Rorty, as referenced by Wikipedia to “Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and the Reification of Language” Essays on Heidegger and Others: Philosophical Papers, (Cambridge University Press, 1991),
  61. Priscilla Wald “Contagious,” (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008) 263.
  62. #reframecovid,
  63. #ReframeCovid, website,
  64. Robert Hormats, “World War III isn’t what the strategists thought it would be,” The Hill, 14 April 2020,
  65. Ishaan Tharoor, “Are we at ‘war’ with coronavirus?” The Washington Post, 6 April 2020,
  66. Saurav Upadhyay, “The problem with saying we’re ‘at war’ with coronavirus,” American Friends Service Committee, Blog, 8 April 2020,
  67. Will Bunch, “No, President Trump, you can’t bomb a virus. We need expertise and empathy – not war,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 April 2020,
  68. Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” Financial Times, 3 April 2020, https://
  69. Christine Schwöbel-Patel, “We don’t need a ‘war’ against coronavirus. We need solidarity,” Aljazeera, 6 April 2020,