I’ve always been a big believer that the words we choose to use really do matter. They help us understand; they convey emotion and information, and connect us to one another. What will the words of 2020 do for us, and to us?

In the course of just the last seven months, certain words and phrases have taken on a life of their own. They aren’t just words: They are topics for debate, fuel for bitter arguments, tools for discussion and will evoke emotion in people who might otherwise have been silent. 

Here are seven categories of just a few of the words raining on us during this 2020 storm. The quotes are mine, maybe not word for word — then and now. 

1. COVID-19, pandemic, virus, coronavirus

Then: “This can’t last long, can it?”

Now: “This has changed everything.”

2. Wear a mask, social distance, six feet apart, handwashing, personal protective equipment, N95, “don’t touch your face” 

Then: “Seems simple enough.”

Now: “We still can’t contain it?”

3. Mitigation efforts, slow the spread, flatten the curve 

Then: “Makes sense; can’t last long.”

Now: “Even if one person in our community tests positive, we can’t move forward.”

4. Isolation, compassionate care visits, window visits, outdoor visits 

Then: “We can do this to keep our residents safe.”

Now: “We cannot put our residents through this any longer. They need to be with their families.”

5. Nasal swabs, PCR, surveillance testing, brain tickler, trigger testing 

Then: “Wait, what?”

Now: “It’s not so bad getting tested every week.”

6. Guidance, mandates, regulations, recommendations

Then: “We are used to this. It will be fine.”

Now: “The next change will come again soon. We’ve lost faith.” 

7. Exposure, quarantine, outbreak, contact tracing

Then: “Terrifying.”

Now: “Life.” 

My list and categories certainly aren’t all inclusive. As I consider this year, the words we choose to use matter now more than ever. They spark so many emotions. One person’s definition may be entirely different from another’s. Do we have room for this in how we communicate with one another? I believe we do, but as the storm of 2020 passes, we must be more patient, more understanding, offer grace and consider empathy. I believe this is what will help us truly understand one another.