Hey Zoomer – Can You Talk the New Language of the Age?

While the health crisis has surely changed our lives, it has also rapidly changed our vocabulary.  You hear new terms everywhere now such as ‘social distancing,’ a seemingly oxymoron concept to an Italian from Rome such as myself, or ‘flattening the curve,’ which I now hear being used as metaphor for businesses attempting to contain a situation. And one of my favorites, the ‘super-spreader,’ which evokes zombie-like images.

And then of course there is the Zoom phenomenon.

My kids are using Zoom. Their soccer teams are using Zoom to stay in shape through virtual workout sessions. Teachers are using Zoom for online lessons. My wife is using Zoom to attend her favorite yoga class.  My technology-challenged 80-year old parents became Zoom pros overnight. And the bodega around the corner uses Zoom to connect with friends on the other side of the world. Zoom, zoom, zoom.

In a span of months, Zoom went from an easy-to-use video conferencing platform to a socially pervasive term that has become a household term: “Are you zooming now? Let’s get on zoom! Why don’t we zoom it instead of emailing?”  Even the Wall Street Journal has published an article focused on the meeting fatigue from home and titled it “Why Zoom Meetings Can Exhaust Us.” Zoom has risen to the naming exosphere that only a few other brands have reached in the past: Kleenex, Xerox, FedEx, Google.

This sudden popularity of Zoom must be making companies such as WebEx and GoToMeeting quite upset as their market leadership and brand power appears to have evaporated overnight. But it shouldn’t be a surprise.  Unlike the clunky GoToMeeting, and the aloof and corporate-sounding WebEx, Zoom is a simple, familiar, friendly and evocative word with great onomatopoeic qualities, easy to read and fun to use. What more do you want in a name?

Skype is certainly another one of those fortunate words that have enabled people to use them not just as purchased solutions but as verbs (“I am Skyping now, please call me later”). Disjointed from commonly used functional terms terms such as Web or Meeting, the coined neologism allowed Skype to act as an empty vessel, and be filled with meaning overtime. Skype’s phonetic qualities, brevity, and the familiar word “sky” in its name enabled people to quickly adopt the word and become a brand name tied to a groundbreaking value proposition.

On the less fortunate side of the COVID-19 era is Corona. The globally popular beer brand was in the news sometime in March after consumers in the US associated it mistakenly with the virus (I am still scratching my head over this in disbelief). CBS reported that 38% of people surveyed said they would not buy Corona beer under any circumstances.  One has to wonder if Corona beer will be an illustrious victim of the coronavirus or if the brand will survive the temporary crisis.

By the way, COVID-19 is an interesting name itself. The name is an acronym made up by three-word segments and a number: CO for Corona, VI for virus, D for disease and 19 for 2019.  Formerly, this disease was referred to as “2019 novel coronavirus” or “2019-nCoV,” both options being a bit difficult to remember and lengthy to write.  The world of business is full of names like COVID-19: IBM, AT&T, FedEx, GEICO. They are the result of a business focus evolution that made the original names inadequate and confusing to the market.  International Business Machines became IBM because the organization was offering solutions, services and products well beyond machines. The same thing can be said for GEICO, formerly known as Government Employee Insurance Corporation.

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name,” said Confucius. He’s right: naming is an essential and important part of attributing meaning to what surrounds us, the result of a profoundly human need to categorize and label things so we make sense of them, understand them, internalize them and make them part of our lives.

Will COVID-19, Zoom, and social distancing remain as relevant as they are today? Maybe so, or maybe as Salman Rushdie says, in common use they will quickly “become mere sounds, their etymology being buried, like so many of the earth’s marvels, beneath the dust of habit.”

Posterity will be the judge.

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