City Manager's Messages

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Apr 13

[ARCHIVED] Words and Phrases

The original item was published from April 13, 2020 9:57 AM to April 13, 2020 9:59 AM

"By words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life."
—Jean Baptiste Girard

We’ve all heard them more times than we probably care to remember and, with most, we have probably uttered them a time or two ourselves.  They have become a vocabulary shared worldwide— COVID words and phrases.


Social distancing, PPE, self-isolation, essential workers, flattening the curve, in times such as these, the new normal, and many more.  What does it all mean?  Will such words and phrases become part of our language or existence?  Will they themselves become part of a new normal?

Other Times Other Words

To gain some perspective, we need not go farther back than Sept. 11, 2001, when similarly the world as we knew it changed overnight.  Suddenly words and phrases such as first responder, TSA, homeland, twin towers, and 9/11 became all too common additions to our daily lives, and remain powerful and full of meaning to this day.  Even the financial crisis of 2008 created its own lexicon:  Too big to fail, stimulus, subprime mortgage, and TARP, to mention just a few.

How many of the current words and phrases will remain with us after the threat of the virus passes?  How many will shape the way we talk about the current times, or even about viruses or pandemics that may yet lie in the future?  I want to focus on two particular phrases to offer some thoughts: Social distancing and essential worker.

About Two of These 

Social distancing seems to me a problematic statement and one, frankly, I wish would leave our vocabulary. While physically distancing ourselves from others is necessary to slow the spread of the virus and ease pressure on our health care system, being socially distant or isolated from one another is the last thing needed at this time.  Indeed, for most it isn’t even an apt description of what is taking place.  In many ways, we have never been closer to our family, friends, even those folks we haven’t seen or talked to in years. 

Closeness in heart, mind, spirit, and voice is needed now more than ever.  We see this portrayed by Italians singing to one another from their balconies, Brits stepping outside and clapping for their healthcare workers, and city skylines and monuments the world over bathed in blue light honoring those tending to the ill.  We see this as we walk our neighborhoods, check on our neighbors, and worship virtually.  We need each other. Physical distancing, yes; social distancing, never.

Essential work is something I often talk about with new employees at the City, how they have the responsibility and privilege to make a difference in people’s lives every day. This may at times be someone’s actual safety or, at other times, the quality of their life.  We have seen recently just how essential the people we often take for granted—clerks, laborers, delivery persons, etc.— are to our very existence. 

What I share with the new employees is that while a police officer or firefighter is readily identified as essential, it is a mistake to fail to acknowledge the 911 operator, the mechanic, the technician, the HR clerk, the payroll clerk, the purchasing agent, the attorney, and so many others who make their response possible. The truth is, they are all essential in the delivery of these life-saving services.  So, if we can’t rid ourselves of the phrase, can we at least acknowledge its comprehensiveness and honor all it encompasses?

Some Old and Proven Words

I don’t know what lies ahead in our struggle with the coronavirus, what words and phrases may yet be spoken, or what will remain long after, and how we and our places may be altered as a result.  I do know words have meaning, convey values and significance, and help us manage through challenging times.   Along with self-isolation, flattening the curve and COVID, I hope we find a place for a few old and proven words and phrases such as hope, compassion, honor, love, and kindness.  Stay strong and healthy, Roanoke!

-- Bob Cowell