With the number of nationwide COVID-19 cases decreasing and the number of Americans receiving COVID-19 vaccinations increasing, many are looking forward to an end of the pandemic. I am too. But I am also looking forward to an end of pandemic clichés. I mean those tired phrases used by journalists, bloggers and commentators to describe our collective pandemic experience.
How many times are we going to hear “we’re all in this together?” The phrase began innocently enough as an exhortation to strengthen the bonds of community, to help those in need. And for a brief time early in the pandemic it perhaps meant something. But it’s been used so often over the past year that it has become almost meaningless, just background noise.
You know a phrase has been worked to the point of exhaustion when a politician — a profession that trades in cliches (“the American people have spoken”) — apologizes for saying it. President Biden in a November speech said, “I know it sounds trite to say, but we’re all in this together.” Mr. Biden used the phrase to plead for a nationwide effort to combat COVID-19, a plea that will probably prove ineffective. And now the phrase is politically charged. Many see it as a rebuke to those who object to lockdowns, mask mandates and school closings.
But the big problem with “we’re all in this together” is not its partisan connotations. It’s that the phrase’s implicit promise of unity is manifestly untrue. Whatever else the pandemic has done, it has not unified the nation. It has only further exposed our frayed social fabric. Even the horrific experience of a pandemic failed to overcome the differences in wealth, race and cultural values that divide the country. The phrase “we’re all in this together” should appear on the list of the biggest lies in the world, right next to “the check is in the mail” and “your call is important to us.”
A phrase similarly drained of meaning by overuse is “the new normal.” This phrase was first used to describe the drastic changes in our lives caused by the pandemic — changes in employment, housing, income, education, etc. As the pandemic wore on, however, its meaning has been stretched to describe any COVID-19 workaround, no matter how trivial or insignificant, such as home delivery of groceries. And many things touted as “the new normal” are not all that new. For example, video business meetings, remote work, online dating or online college courses. Then there’s the grammatical uncertainty of what comes after the “the new normal.” When the pandemic is over, will we return to the old normal? Normality, normalcy or, like, normal, dude?
Another cliché brought forth by COVID-19 is “the pandemic made me do it” excuse. The pandemic has conveniently allowed us to shift blame for personal failings from ourselves to the fallout from COVID-19. Do we binge eat? The extra weight is pandemic pounds. Do we doom scroll or binge watch TV? It’s pandemic malaise. Do we wear pajamas all day? It’s pandemic fashion. Do we forget important things or reach snap judgments? It’s pandemic brain. (Full disclosure: I make abundant use of the pandemic excuse to avoid visiting my mother and leaving my house for weeks at a time.)
All of this is not to deny or denigrate the death, isolation and deprivation we have suffered during the pandemic. Rather, it’s a plea to avoid compressing our understanding of that suffering into overused categories, to avoid thinking about the pandemic in prepackaged ways.
Clichés are useful because they often contain a scintilla of truth. That’s why we use them. But, as author George Orwell famously warned, reaching for a cliché is usually a substitute for thought.
Everyone hopes for a quick end to the pandemic. When that blessed day finally comes, I hope that the collateral damage to the English language unleashed by the pandemic will also end.
Eric Heavner (email@example.com) teaches political science at Towson University.