July 10, 2020
July 10, 2020

A VIRUS BY ANY OTHER NAME: Terminology and messaging of Covid-19

A VIRUS BY ANY OTHER NAME: Terminology and messaging of Covid-19

Social Distancing

Safer at Home

Flatten the Curve

Four months ago these terms had no meaning.  

Today, they are used in almost every conversation we have.

I became super interested in these terms and their role in helping the public understand and respond appropriately to the pandemic.  The ties to product messaging and go-to-market strategy are not difficult to see.  How do we take an unknown item (in this case, a fast-spreading virus- but in a business case, maybe a product the marketplace is not familiar with) and help the marketplace or general public understand and easily grasp the message.  With this in mind, a deep dive into some of the most effective of these pandemic "branded terms" began.  

"Safer At Home"

Maybe the most see/say of them all, but also the hardest to find an exact tactical definition.  Leaves us to imagine the meeting where someone is deciding on this term and how to get people to stay inside....

Person 1: "We could say 'You are safe in your house".

Person 2: Eh, legal team says there are issues if we promise safety.  Let's make it vaguely comparative.  "You are safer in your house".

Person 3: Too long, let's shorten it to "Safer When Home"

Person 1: Yes, good idea.  But I wish we could use the @ in Insta emoji stickers, so how about "Safer At Home"

All: YES!

Probably something like this.

Turns out the origins were just as hard to track down as the exact definition of a "Safer At Home" order.  In mid-March San Francisco Bay Area issued a "Shelter In Place" order (a term that gets used interchangeably with SAH).  Shelter-In-Place had previously been used in other emergency circumstances such as active shooter situations.  According to Wikipedia, some residents confused the two, leading Governor Newsom to use the term "Stay-At-Home" order instead.  Other states quickly joined in, including New York whose Governor Andrew Cuomo had also ridiculed the term "shelter-in-place" as panic invoking due to its active shooting situation/ nuclear war connotations.  

As to the linguistic transition from "Stay-At-Home" to "Safer-At-Home", there's not a lot documented.  We'd love any insight you might have. Basic assumptions are Safer-At-Home was a natural progression as a step down in severity from Stay-At-Home.  Less demanding but equally important.

"Flatten The Curve"

The dawning of the term "Flatten the curve" was a bit easier to hunt down.  The phrase was coined by Dr. Howard Markel, a physician, professor and medical historian at University of Michigan.  In a study of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, Markel compared cities that utilized non-pharmaceutical measures to avoid a spike in infections by spreading them out over a longer (flatter) period of time- with those that didn't (and resulted in a taller curve).  The former showed to fare better through the pandemic.  

The term took on new strategic meaning in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. Used heavily in the early weeks and months of the virus and quarantines, it is a call to action- giving people a sense of ownership that there is something they can DO to contribute.  It's also practical- almost as if to say "We can do this, we are not looking for FULL elimination, just a participation in flattening."  Lastly, using the term "curve" succinctly conveys the scientific origins... a nod to the bell shaped curve that relies on data and intellect. These factors allowed "flatten the curve" to catch on to mass adoption as an official mantra for alleviation of Covid-19.

"Social Distancing"

According to the BC Medical Journal, "Social Distancing" did not originate with regard to a virus or pandemic.  In 1963, Edward Wall, a cultural anthropologist, created a new proxemics framework (proxemics is knowledge that deals with the amount of space people feel it necessary to set between themselves and others).   The intention was to give distance for visual, tactile, auditory or olfactory simulation to the point that some might feel intruded upon and react negatively by another.  The study suggested four main zones of space between individuals:

  1. Intimate distance (0-18 inches): giving or receiving a hug
  2. Personal distance (1.5-3 feet): usually reserved for family or friends
  3. Social distance (4-12 feet): when meeting strangers
  4. Public distance (12+ feet): such as in public presentations

While the exact distance in each of these zones differs across sources, the general principle remains.  "Social" distance was a zone, and we transformed the zone into an action for use in describing the distance.

With this usage, of course, the term has received pushback from audiences thinking that the "social" part of the phrase wasn't strong enough.   Because the word social has implications of physical interaction, some have pushed to have the phrase recoined as "safe distancing", physical distancing or even distant socializing.  Yet, none of those options have had the same staying power.

International Terminology

As the world deals with the Covid-19 pandemic, countries have coined and used various other phrases to refer to or explain alleviation efforts.  A couple notable favorites below, let us know in the comments if you have heard or experienced others.  


Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a country wide "circuit breaker" on April 3.  This means hunkering down at home in order to "break the chain of transmissions" of covid19 in the community.    It gets props for being active, action oriented, and final sounding.  The term also makes the highlight list as it expresses the desired outcome- braking the chain of disease transmission- rather than focusing on the restrictions on the country's people.

MALAYSIA- Movement Control Order

In no mincing of words, Malaysia goes straight to the heart of the matter with the term "Movement Control Order".  Rather than the results-orientation of "circuit breaker" or "flatten the curve", the Malaysian nationwide order was outright and clear on restricting movement.  Point blank.

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