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Where did that phrase come from - Social distancing is not a new thing
Stan St. Clair

By Stan St. Clair


In this grim time of global pandemic, we have been introduced to phrases which are foreign to our everyday speech. Likely the most overused expression is “social distancing.” 

Most of us likely assumed that it was both a new term and a new practice. Neither are true. Merriam Webster (online) states that the first known use of the term was in 2003 with the SARS outbreak. It was certainly used in the H1N1 scare in 2009. But it is actually much older. 

A 1974 PhD thesis for Duke University (Durham, N.C.) by Dana Bruce Sattin titled “The Effects of Expectancy and Professional Identity upon Attributions of Mental Illness” cites the term three times. The first is found on page 5 and indicates its use several years earlier.

“Phillips (1967) suggested that the increased social distancing that occurs when someone is associated with the label of mental illness arises because the public attempts to distance themselves from people who are reported as unpredictable, weak, dangerous and tense (cf. Nunnally, 1961).”

Social distancing measures were taken in the U.S. during the disastrous influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Philadelphia experienced its first cases on Sept. 17. The hospitals were soon overflowing. In the first week, 4,500 people died. On Oct. 3, social distancing measures were introduced. When the disease spread to St. Louis on Oct. 5, it only took two days for them to implement social distancing there.

The practice has been around since biblical times. Leviticus 18 states that lepers were considered unclean and required to separate themselves from everyone else to keep their disease from spreading.

This takes us back to wise King Solomon who tells us in Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV): “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun.”


If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at 931-212-3303 or email him at stan@stclair.net.