I was surprised and amused to find an entry on the proper spelling of “cancel, canceled, canceling, cancellation” in the Associated Press Stylebook’s new “Coronavirus Topical Guide” page. You would think this former Word of the Week would become less topical in a pandemic, not more. But it makes a curious sense. Somewhat early on in the Coronavirus Era, then- New York Times writer Bari Weiss predicted that the virus would “make our old culture wars seem quaint.” The idea was that with major life and death issues focusing the societal mind on what really matters, some of the fights we have over mere connotation would melt away. Important though some of these topics may be to the language obsessives of the world, in a plague year, they would look more like arguments about which way to hang the toilet paper or whether cats or dogs are better pets. (The answer is dogs.) We would put aside as morally irrelevant some of the bickering and see it as idle chatter in the fullness of how bad it all can get.
That has not come to pass. To wit, the AP now advises avoiding the term “contagion.” It is apparently “usually better to use words like disease or illness, or more specific words like virus.” Also canceled for best AP uses: “pathogen (new).” One should “avoid this term,” too, in favor of “virus,” “bacteria,” or the “generic/informal terms germs or bugs.” No justification is offered. But it seems the word “contagion” has been ruled to be stigmatizing, such as when the World Health Organization said we should not refer to people “transmitting” or “spreading” COVID-19 because it “assigns blame.” “Superspreader event,” meanwhile, hasn’t made it onto AP’s to-avoid list. (And it should not.) This is all arbitrary at best. All that’s changed is who is being blamed. Nobody has any real reason to guide writers against these words.
In April, a Word of the Week noted that the recent term “social distancing” had been canceled, and the most scientific locution was now “physical distancing.” Needless to say, that didn’t take. Language evolves, and evolution cannot be undone so easily with an edict. In May, another WOTW was “mistress,” because the self-appointed arbiters of morality at AP had issued guidance that it is “archaic and sexist.” In the latest guide bulletin, we find that the people in charge of the most widely used rules for how journalists should write in English have not quite taken the right lessons from these episodes. They are not using a light touch. And they are still setting about trying to make social issues copy issues — and vice versa.
The effect of guiding against “pathogen” and in favor of “bug” is a little like if cabin announcements stopped calling airplane bathrooms “the lavatory” and just went with “the john.” In February, NPR noted the 2011 blockbuster Contagion was trending. Now, its title word is to be junked for journalistic usage. Just a few not-so-short months ago, when like so many people, I was reading everything that I could find on the looming disaster, I noticed a change: The more authoritative and official a publication wished to sound, the more its writers suffused their prose with these sorts of Latinate words that almost suggest they know the many Latin terms one becomes conversant in during medical school. Now, it is the science-sounding words on the back foot.