‘Social distancing’: how a 1950s phrase came to dominate 2020

As schools prepare to reopen, many wonder how small children are expected to maintain “social distancing”. Some French teachers have been isolating their charges within little plague squares chalked on the playground. But maybe the choice of the phrase “social distancing” in the first place has been counterproductive.

If “social distancing” sounds to you more like snubbing or ghosting a friend, you are right. It was a 1957 collection of work by sociologist Karl Mannheim that first described it as a way to enforce power hierarchies. “The inhibition of free expression can also serve as a means of social distancing,” he wrote. “Thus, the higher ranks can constrain themselves to preserve a certain kind of deportment or dignity.” In doing so, they distance themselves socially from the plebs.

It was only in the mid-2000s that “social distancing” was adopted for pandemic measures, but it is potentially alienating: after all, we are not actually advised to distance our social selves, only our bodies. So perhaps we should all adopt the clearer alternative preferred by, among others, the Irish government: “physical distancing”. Physical distancing might lead in some sad cases to social distancing, too, but it’s not the same thing.

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.

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