Introduction to Keywords Now: Pandemic

How has the COVID pandemic altered our use of key terms that shape our understanding of that event and its aftermath?

Raymond Williams famously wrote that his Keywords project emerged from his almost visceral sense upon returning from fighting in World War II that the meaning of the word “culture” had changed in his absence. From that gut feeling came decades of research and rumination on the meaning of “culture,” its shifting relation to the term “society,” and then a developing understanding of “keywords” as terms that register and participate in broad semantic and political shifts.

The cluster of keywords linked here is grounded in our visceral sense that the global pandemic that began in late 2019 has generated significant semantic and political shifts, and that those shifts can be traced in changes in the meanings of certain keywords. As a result, we asked contributors to Keywords for American Cultural Studies, along with writers for then forthcoming Keywords for Health Humanities, if they would be interested in helping us to think through these changes.

One response was a lively discussion on a roundtable at the 2022 American Studies Association conference; another is this creation of this cluster, which also marks and celebrates the publication of Keywords for Health Humanities. Currently posted are short pieces on “health,” “immunity,” “safe,” and “science,” and we expect to add others soon. Where possible, there are links to the longer original essays from the two volumes as well.

Just as Williams wrote from the midst of the shift in the meaning of “culture,” the contributors here are aware that they are not writing from a safe temporal distance. Official declarations that “COVID is over” or that we are “returning to normal” are undoubtedly part of the discourse that this cluster analyzes. Put simply, those statements would have been meaningless prior to COVID, an event that will continue to shape our collective futures.


Our hope is that instructors of courses in American studies, cultural studies, health humanities, and related fields who use materials from these Keywords volumes will want to assign these writings as supplements to the earlier essays, additions that highlight the methodological point that keywords shift in meaning over time and space. For others, this cluster will be a conversation in itself, one that (we hope) will be generative of more research and thought, since that is the core purpose of all the “Keywords Now” clusters here on the NYU Press website, including one that asks “What Happened on January 6, 2021?” and another on the three terms that make up the highly contested phrase “Critical Race Theory.”

Perhaps these short pieces will lead you to read the longer essays in Keywords for American Cultural Studies and in Keywords for Health Humanities (both linked here). All keyword essays are meant to be tools, as the cover image of NYU Press’s Keywords book series indicates. They can be tools for academic analysis; they can also be tools for political understanding and organizing; they may even turn out to be wrenches thrown into the works. These supplemental posts are tools in the same ways. We hope that you will find them useful and use them well.