• M. Christine Benner Dixon

“To Social Distance” - A Verb For Our Times

It started innocently enough. First coming into use in the 1950s, the term “social distancing” was employed by sociologists and psychologists to describe how people could be alienated within social relationships. By the turn of the 21st century, “social distancing” had been adopted by medical professionals as a term for certain practices--such as avoiding large groups in tight spaces--that might limit the spread of infection within communities.

Enter SARS-CoV-2--that little darling we commonly refer to as The Coronavirus (TM) or Covid. Now everyone and their step-nephew is talking about “social distancing.” And as soon as the general public got their grubby little paws on it, something weird started to happen to this phrase, linguistically speaking. We verbed it.

Et tu, CDC?

Or rather, we re-verbed it. Because, to be honest, the linguistic history of this little phrase is a bit of a snarl of verbs and nouns washing back and forth. The word “distance” enters the English language as a noun sometime in the 14th Century. The word, initially, is heavy with conflict and strife. Its Latin roots, however, point to the simple action of standing apart, and eventually the English word resolves into this more generic apartness.

It is not until the 16th Century that English first converts “distance” to a verb. Now, it is something to do: one places someone or something away, apart. The gerund (that is, “distancing” as a noun--e.g., “the distancing of one’s closest friends”) shows up within another hundred years. Slap a little adjective on that gerund, and here we are: social distancing.

Because gerunds originate as verbs, the shift back to action is fairly easy:

In the midst of the Great Awakening, the people were, indeed, awakening to all sorts of new ideas.

Normally, however, we don’t take the adjectives along for the ride. The people were not “great awakening.” People will (probably) never “violent uprise” or “funny feel.” But we are “social distancing.”

Occasionally, contemporary speakers adjust the phrase by traditional grammar rules, and the adjective “social”--now modifying a verb--becomes the adverb “socially.”

Thanks for trying, Merriam-Webster.

But it’s pointless to deny that we’ve crossed the Rubicon with this one.

Dictionary.com knows what’s up.

Before you weep bitter tears of regret for this verb-turned-noun-turned-verb-turned-noun-turned-verb, remember that we do this all the time. We take the individual words of phrases and mash them together in our minds and language and divorce them wholesale from their original part of speech. Bonnie Trenga Mills over at Grammar Girl shows us how this happens with a phrasal verb (a verb + preposition/particle that work together as the verb of the sentence): “to break down” becomes “a breakdown,” not “a breaking down”--“to tune up” becomes “a tune-up,” not “a tuning up.” This somewhat ungrammatical shift in part of speech underlines the fact that the two words of the phrasal verb are inextricable. The original words have melded together.

By turning “social distancing” (the adjective + gerund noun) into “social distancing” (the phrasal verb), we are saying that this is no longer about mere separation that takes place within a community--this is something new. This phrase has meaning that exceeds the denotation of its original parts. It is the stuffy voice of your sister talking through her mask. It is the furtive dart across a street to avoid another walker. It is stepping out six feet (ten feet to be sure) between your lawn chairs and bringing your own utensils. It is conversations through plexiglass and the digital stutter of the video hangout. It is roped off seating and getting on the back door of the bus. It is the umpire out behind the mound.

We are social distancing. We get it now. We understand. And in understanding, our innocence is lost. But this phrase is ours, now, and we will use it as we please.

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