You probably didn’t realize how many words begin with the prefix “pan-” until we found ourselves living through a pan … demic. On social media, we are in a “panorama,” a “pandemonium,” a “pandemi moore,” a “panini.”
Over the past year, a new lexicon has emerged online: “quarantinis” to describe at-home cocktails in quarantine; “stimmy” for stimulus checks; “doomscrolling” for your inability to go offline. These humorous phrases make intimidatingly scientific and medical jargon more accessible, and shorter versions of words often become useful because they are easily and quickly verbalized. Most of all, humor can be an important tool for processing these trying times. (A 15-year follow-up study of 53,556 participants from Norway found that having a sense of humor is also associated with living longer.)
“We’re manipulating the structure of the word,” said Adrienne R. Washington, a professor of sociocultural linguistics at Norfolk State University in Virginia. “We’re dropping syllables, like with ‘Rona,’ or sometimes we make them into diminutives, which are words that are more familiar or maybe even endearing.”
Dr. Washington noted: “A diminutive makes something less grave than the original terms.”
There’s also taking it to the level of art. Hunter Harris, a freelance writer, has pioneered, on social media and in Hung Up, her newsletter, the “pandemi cup bra,” “Jonathan panDemme” and “pandeuxmoi.”
“You just have to kind of retreat into the most blasé or playful language because the actual tragedy of it is too much,” she said. “It’s also just like a funny brain puzzle to think about what words can mutate into becoming pandemic.”
There is a formula for writing a tweet that gets maximum retweet value. Sometimes, the winning formula can be piling onto whatever funny meme format is circulating that week. That creates a collaborative aspect of virality — meaning that this linguistic joke can’t be credited to any one person. It’s everyone’s creation.
A large part of this meme’s success is owed to Black Twitter, which Dr. Washington described as “a virtual community” but also a linguistic one, marked, in part, by “collaborative journalism.” Much like African-American Vernacular English, or “Black speech,” allows Black Americans to distinguish themselves from their counterparts through the use of culturally specific phrases and references, Black Twitter “often gives us the language to make sense of different realities,” Dr. Washington said.
For Black Americans, some of these different realities can be traumatic and even fatal. Levity is frequently used as a way to minimize the weight of events that feel too heavy to hold.
One use of Black Twitter has become an opportunity for Black Americans to participate in a public, collective grieving process in real-time. Its cultural relevance has influenced the active participation of others, one joke building off the previous, making this particular style of linguistic meme popular across additional communities online.
“It’s something that we all have in common,” said Ms. Harris. “And the internet, and Twitter specifically, is mostly a place to talk about things in a lighthearted, clever, funny way — or at least those are the jokes that perform the best.”
Ms. Harris tried to use “panopticon” in conversation, and it didn’t play out as well in person, which confirmed that not calling the pandemic by its name is “a very online thing to do.”
When Ayana Lage, a full-time marketing freelancer in Tampa, Fla., first came across pandemic-renaming on Twitter, it was in response to a group photograph taken on vacation that wasn’t following travel or social distancing protocol.
“Someone said: ‘In a panorama?’ And it stopped me in my tracks. Then the replies were people riffing off of each other,” Ms. Lage said. “At one point — a low point — I did Google ‘words that start with P’ because I wanted to up my arsenal,” she added, and laughed.
As the pandemic continues, so do the nicknames — try “Panic at the Disco.” According to Ms. Lage, addressing the weight of the coronavirus’ impact on society in a humorous way “feels natural” and “feeds into the absurdity of it all and the weird times that we’re facing.”
“New meme formats often die very quickly,” said Ms. Lage. “So for something to last more than a month is definitely not the norm.”