A call for Linguistic Awareness in the Age of Pandemic: a Brief study of a Misleading Term in a Trending Covid19- Related Article in Nature Human Behavior

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soheil daneshzadeh

Subject: Arts & Humanities, Anthropology & Ethnography Keywords: Small gatherings cancellation; Cognitive linguistics; Corpus analysis; Semantic frame; Covid-19.

In an insightful article published in Nature human behavior on November 2020, the effectiveness of 46 “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (NPI) regarding Covid-19 pandemic have been compared1. One of these 46 categories, the one which is ranked as the most effective measure, is named “small gatherings cancelation”. In the discussion section of that article, the authors introduce a list of what they probably assume to be representative examples of this category, namely, “closures of shops”, “closure of restaurants,” “mandatory home–working”, “gathering of 50 people or less” and so on. The name that the authors have given to this category could give rise to confusions and misunderstandings. We used corpus analysis to show that “small gathering” is commonly used to denote a planned or spontaneous “event”, and consequently does not convey what the authors intend this term to cover as its most representative instances i.e., Simultaneous presence of people (crowd) in shops or offices. Furthermore, taking a top-down approach, we focused on the information which was provided in reference material like CDC and WHO documents. The analysis showed that “small gatherings” is encoded in those sources to denote “events” and “small gatherings cancelation” is used to denote cancelling preplanned events. In conclusion, neither unspecialized language nor official/institutional discourse uses “small gathering” the way that the authors of the aforementioned article use it i.e., to refer to simultaneous presence of people (crowd) in shops or offices. Therefore, when language users come across this phrase, if they do not read the entire article, the only semantic frame that is evoked in their mind would be that of a festive or social “event” rather than of crowded shops or offices; this misunderstanding is cognitively justified and consequently changing this terminology is recommended.


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