Distancing – Social, Physical, Verbal?

Wednesday Word of the Week from SREDA’s resident word nerd, Catherine Hynes

Social distancing. On March 1st, most of us had never heard of it. Two weeks later, the term appeared in Prime Ministerial addresses, briefings from Chief Medical Officers across the country, on social media, on television, everywhere. It’s difficult to go a day without being reminded of this term as part of our duty to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Almost as quickly as the term proliferated came new phrasing. The World Health Organization recommended in late March that we say physical distancing to more clearly articulate the guidelines people should follow. Rather than avoiding social contact, the idea was that we ought to keep in touch – just virtually instead of in person.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the phrase social distancing as we currently mean it first in 2004, coinciding with the global SARS outbreak ( There is another sense of the term, perhaps a more common one until COVID-19 appeared on the scene, denoting “the action or practice of maintaining a degree of remoteness or emotional separation from another person or social group.” It’s this sense meaning aloofness and social reservations that we are now trying to avoid by calling our public health practice physical distancing.

The idea of physical (or social) distancing to prevent disease spread is not a new one. Not only was it recommended as a means of mitigating the damage of SARS in the early 2000s, but similar practices – cancelling large gatherings, closing schools, churches and other institutions – have been used historically. During the Spanish Flu pandemic, American cities implementing physical distancing policies early and thoroughly experienced far fewer deaths than cities that lagged or relaxed too early (

No matter the label, the need for distance is here. Whether we are keeping 2 meters between us on walks or following one-way signage through grocery store aisles, that space is important. What we call it, less so. It works.