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Faye Flam

Fuzzy Language Is Setting Back the Fight Against Covid

Words like “breakthrough,” “booster” and even “mask” mean different things to different people.

Mask, or not a mask?

Mask, or not a mask?

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

People no longer know what to do about the Covid pandemic. Part of the problem is the very language we use to talk about it. Words such as “breakthrough,” “booster” and even “sick” mean different things to different people — and to experts and the general public. The solution is for experts to be mindful of words that have various popular meanings, and to avoid others altogether. Public health officials who wonder why the public is ignoring them — or who blame scientific illiteracy for their own muddy communication — should consider adopting a new glossary for the pandemic’s third year. 

The language problem really hit me when Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in a video talk that he wished experts had never used the term “breakthrough infection.” This descriptor makes it sound as if the Covid vaccines failed. But in other diseases, asymptomatic or mild infections often coexist with vaccination.