Who Invented the Phrase “Social Distancing”?

The World Health Organization would like to retire the phrase “social distancing” in favor of “physical distancing.” Their logic is impeccable: viruses are transmitted when you get physically close to another person, not when you’re chatting on FaceTime or holding a virtual meeting on Zoom. As long as you’re physically separate, you should feel free to be as social as you want.

Fine. But that got me curious: who came up with phrase social distancing in the first place? Does it go back to the 1918 flu pandemic, when physical distancing and social distancing were more or less the same thing, so no one cared about the distinction? Or what?

This turns out to be surprisingly hard to get a handle on. I am, obviously, talking about social distancing as a phrase that refers to a way of fighting epidemics. I don’t care about crinoline skirts or the social habits of the 16th century Spanish court. The concept of social distancing as a way of keeping your inferiors in their place goes back quite a ways.

But in the current epidemiological sense, it doesn’t seem to go back even to the start of the century:

  • The first use in the New York Times comes in 2006: “If the avian flu goes pandemic while Tamiflu and vaccines are still in short supply, experts say, the only protection most Americans will have is ‘social distancing,’ which is the new politically correct way of saying ‘quarantine.’ ”
  • The OED has a reference from the Detroit News from 2004:
  • I’ve found a few other brief references going back to the SARS epidemic in 2003, though none give any hint to the origin of the phrase.
  • And the Google Ngram Viewer, fascinatingly, shows two jumps in the use of the phrase. The first obviously refers to some kind of sociological phenomenon and started gaining popularity in the early 70s. The second, which is almost certainly SARS-related, began in 2004 and then took off in 2005.

So circa 2003 it is, unless someone comes up with something better. But who coined the phrase? And why did they choose to call it social distancing? In 2003 there was obviously a world of difference between social and physical distancing. Is there anyone out there who wants to take the blame for this?

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate