The Grumpy Owl Guide to Some of the Words Used in a Pandemic and a Few of Their Practical Meanings

Language is one hell of a thing. It’s always hard to communicate. Even if you speak the same language as another person, there’s still ample opportunity to be misunderstood.

Now, with this crisis, the problem gets magnified. Not only is clear communication more important than ever, you also get a whole new vocabulary dropped on you and it’s all a bit charged. Like these words don’t just mean things, they mean doing things. So it’s all a bit of a clusterfuck.

While I don’t plan on acting as a dictionary, I’m hoping I can help you understand some of these new words and terms in a practical way. It’s important for you to know what some of these terms mean and it may be more important to know what they mean to you.

Let’s start with something I’ve said before. If you’ve read it before, my apologies, just skip ahead or whatever. But I think it needs repeating. This word is “pandemic.”


PANDEMIC!!! This is a scary word. It brings to mind images of plague ships, mass die-offs, and just, generally, a lot of terrible shit. And certainly, it will be no picnic. This thing is going to get bad and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. That’s just how it is.

But there is another way to view this word “pandemic” and it’s a better view. A pandemic means that the disease has spread all over the world. That’s troubling. But it also means that the disease is not coming from anyone or from anywhere. It’s not arriving from some other location. It’s not the exclusive property of Group X. In the language of horror movies, the word pandemic simply means that “the call is coming from inside the house.”

Yes, your house. You, specifically.

None of this sounds like good news. And it really probably isn’t but I might have forgotten what good news sounds like. It is, however, news. Even better, it’s news that gives you a pretty decent and productive way to start thinking about this. A way of thinking that might help your mental health and lead to better tomorrows. It means that you have some control.

When you accept that the disease is not coming from anywhere anymore, you realize that no one is to blame. You cut off xenophobic impulses at the knees. You start to realize that we are all in this together and that we all have agency, responsibilities, and duties. These are all pretty clear and your health authorities will provide instruction. Depending on your location and situation, these instructions might vary but these instructions will have something in common. Most of them will involve doing nothing. You need to stay at home.

The Immunocompromised

When people hear this term, they often picture a Victorian invalid, wasting away in bed. A draft gets into the room. Trying to summon help, her pale hand rises, clutching a handkerchief that belonged to her husband. She remembers that he died fifty years ago in ditch halfway around the world. She gasps. She drops the handkerchief. She’s dead.

But this term refers to basically anyone who is sick, has been sick, has recently gotten over a serious illness, or has some chronic condition. It’s best to be on the safe side with a term like this. Not so much in terms of making sure you’re completely accurate in using it but in assuming that a lot more people than you think are immunocomprised.

Really, it just means vulnerable.

Unless someone is in tip-top physical shape and has been for a while, you can and should consider them vulnerable. And even if they look like they’re in tip-top shape, you’re not their doctor and you don’t know their lives. Also, when did you get so shallow? Yeesh.

So no shouting at people about how healthy they look. No carrying on about how this only kills the weak or the old or whomever. That is, for one thing, a bit Hitlerish.

Just assume that just about everyone is vulnerable and act accordingly. I mean, don’t get paranoid but develop a sense of shared vulnerability. You ain’t Superman, chum. And even if you are, your loved ones aren’t. And, if those loved ones get sick or die, you seriously think anyone else is going to listen to your Hitlerish conspiracy theorizing? You think anyone else is going to feed your crazy ass turkey on the holidays while you talk about “making America great again” or the healing power of psychic orbs. They’re not. So keep those people safe.

They’re all you’ve got and more than you deserve.

Social Distancing

You’re probably hearing this one a lot. And there’s a good guide to the meaning and practice of social distancing here. What social distancing means is what it sounds like. You have to create and maintain distance between yourself and others.

This happens in a few different ways on a few different levels.

On the biggest level, the one you exercise the least control over, there’s shutdowns. The schools are closed, the government buildings close — these are measures designed to create social distance. On the smallest level, you avoid close contact with your fellow humans. This is also a measure to create social distance. Social distance is the goal of all this shit. It’s the thing you always have to keep in mind — will this action create social distance? Can it be done according to the principles of maintaining social distance? These are the questions you now have to ask and answer before you do anything.

A good basic rule is – if you think you need to depend on a mask or something to keep yourself safe in a certain space, it’s probably not a space you should be in. If you can avoid it, just avoid it. Don’t go. That simple.

Now, there’s sometimes an urge to prove that you’re brave. You’re not going to cave into fear. Not you. Some part of you thinks this is just part of being a stand-up dude. You’re going to shake hands, show people you don’t think they’re sick, and that the only thing to fear is fear itself. You want to set some example of bravery. This is understandable. But it’s not brave and it’s not right. It’s dumb macho shit. It’s superhero movies, not real life.

It puts people in danger. And why? So you can feel tough. That’s some bullshit, friend.

When you practice the things that lead to social distancing, you’re not being cowardly. You’re helping in the fight against this virus. Staying at home isn’t succumbing to fear, it’s being a sensible adult who cares about other people. Creating distance is the best way to show you care. So before you do anything, ask yourself if it creates social distance.

You want social distance.

And social distance usually means not doing anything. It means inconvenience.

It’s not exactly glorious and it’s not really brave, I know. You”ll get used to it.


These terms are often used interchangeably. They shouldn’t be. They are not the same.

A lockdown is a lot more severe than a shutdown. You do not want a fucking lockdown. But if you don’t make a shutdown work, you’re going to get a lockdown. That’s the choice.

You don’t want a lockdown. You might get one. You might need one. But you sure as hell do not want one.

A lockdown is what happened in Wuhan and it’s what’s happening in Italy. It’s a brutal, blunt force tool to create social distancing. Basically, it’s like martial law. You are not allowed outside and, if you go outside, you better be prepared to explain yourself to Uniforms. And you something about Uniforms? They have no sense of humor.

A shutdown is different. It’s what we’re doing in Busan and it’s what’s likely going to happen where you are. You can go outside without explaining yourself, things are open, if empty, and, largely, it’s not enforced by Uniforms. As a system, it depends on your co-operation and on your great community spirit. A shutdown involves closures but it works through trust. You are being trusted to do the right thing. But this is no small thing.

And if you can’t do that much, if you can’t make the shutdown work, the option is not returning to normal. Normal is gone. The option is a lockdown. Your city can become a prison. And it doesn’t take a lot of fucking about to bring that down. So don’t fuck around.

You do not want a lockdown. So do the right thing now.


This is similar to the difference between a lockdown and a shutdown.

Both refer to people or groups of people who have tested positive or who have some reason to believe that they are sick. In both cases, it means absolutely no contact with anyone. Self-isolation means that you are being trusted to do this yourself. Quarantine means that it is being done for you by professionals. Self-isolation is a form of quarantine –it’s self-quarantine– and it is quarantine but it’s not QUARANTINE. Individuals can be under quarantine –probably in a hospital– but QUARANTINE is more likely to happen to places and spaces that have people in them.

Think of those cruise ships.

That’s a quarantine.

Self Isolation is slightly different. You or someone in your home has shown symptoms. Maybe you’ve noticed them yourself and maybe a doctor has noticed them. (If it’s a doctor, just follow their instructions.) If you notice symptoms, you should probably get a test. That may not be possible. It may not even be desirable depending on your health, your condition, the situation with the hospitals, resources and tests in your area. Follow the instructions of the authorities. They know what they’re doing.

So what do you do if you have the symptoms and have received instruction to go into self-isolation? You go into self-isolation. You quarantine yourself. This is a two week period where you have no direct contact with anyone outside your home. None. Listen to the health professionals. They’ll tell you what’s what. Follow doctor’s orders.

It’s a bit like house arrest except your conscience is your electronic monitoring bracelet.

Just staying at home and practicing social distance is a form of self-isolation and it sure is isolating but it’s not, strictly speaking, self-isolation.” If you’ve been instructed to self-isolate and you don’t, you can probably expect a shitload of fines and a QUARANTINE. Maybe on you, maybe on your whole building, maybe in some other places too, places where you just caused an outbreak. You also get to be the person who caused an outbreak, so it’s not ideal.

You can get a pretty good idea of what self-isolation is about here.


I display a necrocontact from The Good Old Days.

This is a word I had to coin myself just to describe something I saw happening. I don’t know if it will be of any use to anyone else but it serves some purpose for me.

A necrocontact is a dead gesture. It’s the handshakes and high-fives. Touching your face in public. Licking your fingers before you count money or open a produce bag at the grocery store. These are the casual human contacts that can no longer be abided and are no longer seen. When you see them, you’re not seeing a living, natural, or normal gesture. You are seeing an undead gesture. These are your necrocontacts.

I needed a word for these, maybe you do or will too.

The Quaranteens

Future generation teens has no idea how good they got it!

Look, a lot of people are indoors with each other. There will be fucking. Don’t be surprised when a baby boom emerges from this situation. And, despite our best efforts, many of these babies will grow up into teenagers. We’ll have to call them something. Without giving them a name it will be much harder to write our op-eds criticizing every single thing they do while we try to sell them rations of shade. I humbly submit that we call this terrible and spoiled generation The Quaranteens. And if they want to get ahead and be able to afford a bunker of their own one day, they should stop putting sun-roasted rat on their insect protein bars. Rat isn’t cheap. Sunlight ain’t free. Who do they think they are anyway? Bezobot 6000? Let’s start preparing for these kids and finding ways to turn them against us now!


It’s pretty unfair and ridiculous to expect people to accept THE ONE AND TRUE HOLY MEANING of any word. All of these words will probably be used in different ways by different people and new words will appear. But, for time being, just like in performing an alien autopsy, it seems like a good idea to take a look at the bones. Just to get some idea of what these words generally mean. Not just in the dictionary sense of meaning and not so we can become pedants because, fuck knows, we all need to go easy on each other here. (Strict but easy.) But because these words get a bit less scary when you know what they mean. These words will have a lot meaning for you in the days and weeks ahead. It’s best to get acquainted with them now. Just so, you know when it’s time to overreact.

Because this whole toilet paper debacle? Good God . . .

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