It is being said that a too early relaxation of national and local ‘social distancing’ guidelines for the recent Covid-19 pandemic might result in an uptick of new cases or even re-infections in the Fall of 2020, and this possibility is being been compared to what happened during the Spanish Flu epidemic, when…

 ...people stopped distancing too early, leading to a second wave of infections that was deadlier than the first, epidemiologists say.


According to Ngrams, and Google.books, the phrase ‘social distancing’ was used in its present context (i.e. distance maintained for sanitary purposes) for only the last couple of years, and prior to that considered to be a sociological term (indicating inter-personal issues) .

By 1919 , it was accepted as being the main reason for the resurgence of the flu pandemic, mostly due to citizens enjoying a mis-guided expression of basic rights. However, I cannot find use of the phrase 'social distancing' from that time. Most of the literature refers to a "let's take off our masks and breathe freedom" type of thing.

So what was the expression used at that time to describe ‘social distancing’?

If it was accepted at that time as an accepted form of prevention, what phrase did they use to describe the concept of ‘social distancing’?

  • 3
    Looking in newspapers of the time, I'm finding lots of references to acknowledge influenza being a "crowd disease" and advising people to avoid crowds, cough/sneeze into cloth, and wear masks to prevent or slow transmission. The Health Department published a list of recommendations that was reproduced in many newspapers. Some towns ordered movie theaters and other gathering places closed, but I don't see a specific name for the practice of staying away from other people.
    – shoover
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 1:43
  • "Rupert Blue" (the Surgeon General) and "influenza" is a useful search.
    – shoover
    Commented Apr 22, 2020 at 1:49

1 Answer 1


According to MW, "social distancing" entered English in 2003, probably during the 2003 outbreak of SARS (that other coronavirus).

As far as I can find, there wasn’t a comparable phrase used in 1918. Plain English was used. Here’s a pretty typical example:

Do not trifle with Spanish influenza symptoms. The situation is positively dangerous here. You are warned to keep away from ALL crowds, in the open air as well as indoors. Do not waste time in restaurants. KEEP CLEAN! Wash your hands before eating. Don't use towels or napkins used by others. Keep the air circulating well in home and office. Do not breathe in other people's faces. Sneeze and cough into your handkerchief. It you catch cold, STAY AT HOME...

The Seattle star., October 08, 1918

When talking about staying at home specifically, there were some specific phrases used, such as isolation and voluntary quarantine (which were mostly recommended for people who had symptoms, even without a diagnosis).

(You may have noticed that circulating air is a recurring theme here. I think the idea is that it would dilute the virus in the air. Apparently, this was such a strongly held belief that open windows were enforced by regulation.)

Many newspapers from this time are freely available, so I suggest you take a look for yourself too. Elephind is a great search engine for this.

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