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  • Writer's pictureEthan Landes

Social Distancing Is Not Social Distancing: Why Specialists Ought to Choose Jargon Responsibly

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, worshipers in Mississippi were given $500 fines by local police for attending a church service. The problem: none of the worshipers left their cars. They were listening to the service in the church parking lot over FM radio. Conservative commentators condemned the fines, arguing it was evidence that Christians’ freedom of religion was being curtailed by the government in the name of the pandemic response.

Now that some time has passed and similar drive-in style events have become a more accepted way to safely gather crowds, I want to offer another possible explanation of the police’s mistake. Local authorities may have been misled by the term “social distancing”. “Social distancing”, which was coined by epidemiologists in the mid-2000s, is a bad name for social distancing, and that may have been what led local authorities to make the mistake they did.

In exploring why “social distancing” is potentially confusing, we will explore a larger issue about the language of expertise—that is, jargon. The confusion caused by the term could have been prevented if scientists had been more careful about how they talk to each other. The adoption of jargon by everyday people is one of the main ways new vocabulary enters languages, and oftentimes the success of this adoption has profound impacts on the public’s wellbeing. Experts should therefore take measures to evaluate the potential impact of their language and, when relevant, talk to each other in a way that is understandable to the general public.

What do I mean when I say “social distancing” is a bad name for social distancing? The term “social distancing” looks like plain English unlike, say, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or antecubital fossa (your elbow pit). Instead of combining obscure Latin words and roots, “social distancing” seems to have more in common with a descriptive phrase like “fat pigeon”, where “social distancing” describes a way of distancing oneself that is social. The problem is that that’s not what social distancing is: social distancing is distancing that is physical.

The adoption of jargon by everyday people is one of the main ways new vocabulary enters languages, and oftentimes the success of this adoption has profound impacts on the public’s wellbeing.

Language is arbitrary: any meaning can be attached to any word or symbol. There is nothing special connecting dogs and the word “dog”, as demonstrated by the Swahili and Kurdish words for dog, “mbwa” and “kûçik”, respectively. Notice, however, that even though language is arbitrary, it is often still predictable. If we had never seen the word “readable” before, we could tell what it means by seeing it is a combination of read and -able.

In contrast to “fat pigeon” or “readable”, a seahorse is not a horse that lives in the sea. Terms like “seahorse”, as well as “hotdog”, “buffalo wing”, and “social distancing” are what linguistics call opaque. Opaque terms are multi-part terms, such as compound nouns or apparent descriptive phrases, that have meanings that are not predictable from their linguistic parts. Hotdogs are not overheated canines, buffalo wings are made of chicken, and social distancing is not distancing that is social in nature.

When we come across unfamiliar words and phrases for the first time, we try to understand them. You may have never read the phrase “smelly yellow sea foam” before, but you know what I mean because English grammar depends on word order. Therefore, when you see two adjectives followed by a noun such as “smelly yellow sea foam”, you know that smelly and yellow modifies sea foam. This is not the case with opaque terms. When we come across them for the first time, our normal ability to interpret meaning does not work and can even backfire.

Although we all know better now, “social distancing” looks like it describes distancing that is social in nature. And to be fair to the term, a lot of effective social distancing does involve distancing oneself socially. Bars and theatres are social spaces, and effective social distancing requires using them carefully or avoiding them altogether. Notice, however, that grocery stores are not social spaces, but effective social distancing involves minimizing trips to them. Similarly, going to a church service is a social activity, but listening to it in cars in the church parking lot via FM radio is effective social distancing.

I’ll leave it to cultural linguists to say how much confusion was caused by the phrase “social distancing”, but stories like the churchgoers' being fined is at least indicative that people were misled by the term. Moreover, governments and health organizations thought the term was problematic. There was a concerted but doomed effort in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to shift everyday language from “social distancing” to “physical distancing”.

For example, in March 2020, the WHO made the switch from “social distancing to physical distancing”, with a WHO epidemiologist saying in an interview with al Jazeera, “We’re changing to say physical distance and that’s on purpose because we want people to still remain connected”. In other words, the WHO preferred “physical distancing” to avoid the impression that being safe required distancing oneself socially. The WHO was not alone. Archives of the Canadian government website show that it quietly swapped the language of its guidance to “physical distancing” on 29 March 2020, and many pushed for the change on social media and in the press.

[S]ometimes jargon terms are not merely difficult to understand, they are also actively misleading.

The concerted effort of powerful organizations and public figures was not able to change how people talk. While many organizations, including the WHO and the Canadian government use “physical distancing” to this day, search data trends indicate “physical distancing” never successfully replaced “social distancing” — even in Canada. In exploring why we still talk about “social distancing” instead of “physical distancing”, there is a lesson for everyone who uses specialised language in some part of their lives.

One of the reasons “social distancing” ultimately won is that “social distancing” was the phrase the strategy already had. Epidemiologists and other specialists have been using “social distancing” for almost two decades as the name for the package of preventative measures we all started adopting in early 2020. In this way, “social distancing” was for most of its life just another bit of specialist jargon. Open any academic paper and you’ll find indecipherable acronyms, fancy terms derived from Latin, and combinations of everyday words used in ways that are opaque. Some of this surely comes from the authors trying to sound fancy, but part of jargon use is out of necessity. Researchers study things that there just aren’t words for in everyday English.

To illustrate the necessity of jargon, consider the history of fundamental physics. “Atom” was borrowed from the Greek word—used at the time by philosophers—meaning smallest particle of matter. When physicists discovered atoms had parts, they ran into a problem. They had already used the available word to mean smallest thing. Physicists therefore had to invent words for what they found, and came up with “proton”, “neutron”, and “electron”. Physicists invented words that would have sounded like nonsense to non-physicists at the time because they needed to call what they found something.

To the reader of this article, “proton”, “neutron”, and “electron” do not sound like nonsense. Some readers may even know that “electron” is a combination of the roots “electr” (electricity) and “on” (ion or the suffix meaning basicunit of something) due to its negative charge and role in forming ions. The names of subatomic particles are not unique in this way. Words and phrases migrate from the pages of arcane academic journals to everyday language all the time. This is how DNA, oxygen, laser, microaggression, atmosphere, psychotic, social distancing, coronavirus, and many other words and phrases entered everyday English.

Specialists such as academics should expect this migration and even welcome it. “DNA” moved from molecular biology to everyday English because those of us who are not molecular biologists learned something about how our bodies and heredity work from molecular biologists. We talk about lasers in day-to-day life because Nobel Prize-worthy work in physicists is now used to entertain cats. The same thing happened with social distancing. We use “social distancing” now because we have a deeper understanding of public health measures designed to reduce disease transmission than we did before COVID-19.

Besides welcoming the migration of their jargon to everyday language, specialists should take steps to prepare for it. With perhaps the exception of “microaggression”, the jargon terms I listed are opaque. No one reading “laser” for the first time could infer it is an acronym for Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Even in that acronym, there is nothing the average person could understand to indicate it is a method of making dots of light appear on things far away. But sometimes jargon terms are not merely difficult to understand, they are also actively misleading. This is true for “social distancing”, as was illustrated with the fining of churchgoers in Mississippi and the attempt by WHO and others to stop using the term.

When introducing new language and new concepts, specialists—regardless of the field—need to ask themselves whether it might one day be important that non-specialists have and communicate ideas involving the concept.

Whether they are epidemiologists, engineers, or plumbers, specialists need to recognize the way jargon enters everyday language and alter how they speak accordingly. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, jargon will enter everyday language. Sometimes, the incorporation of jargon in everyday language has no morally salient consequences. Besides entertaining cats, very little hangs on whether you or I know what “laser” means. But at other times, its incorporation does have morally salient consequences; successful public health responses to COVID-19 depend on whether people understand what is meant when they are told to social distance.

While it might seem that fields related to medicine such as epidemiology have a special duty to avoid misleading and opaque jargon, the truth is more complicated. There is nothing inherently wrong with opaque epidemiological language if you and I will never need to use it or understand it, such as the name of an arcane modelling method.

The duty specialists have to avoid opaque and misleading language depends on the particular concept and term rather than the field they work in. When introducing new language and new concepts, specialists—regardless of the field—need to ask themselves whether it might one day be important that non-specialists have and communicate ideas involving the concept. When dissemination of the concept and the corresponding term will be widespread, occur quickly, or be high stakes, specialists should make their language as friendly to the lay-person as possible.

In the case of "social distancing", the importance to everyday people was predictable. Pandemics are unfortunately inevitable and given how quickly social distancing was deployed in March 2020, it seems public health experts had already decided social distancing would be an important feature of any pandemic response. It is easy to be critical of jargon in hindsight, however. When "laser" was coined, it is doubtful any physicists at the time imagined we would encounter lasers every time we bought something with a barcode.

Because the applicability and importance of a term to non-specialists may not be initially apparent, specialists in every field should continuously re-evaluate their language and be prepared to change their jargon to aid successful dissemination of jargon to non-specialists. As we saw with COVID-19, lives may literally be on the line.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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