1 Mask Up: The Evolving Rhetorical Significance of the Mask in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Anna Lawrence

Anna would like to dedicate this chapter to Ms. Blauman, her fourth-grade homeroom teacher. Through her passion for teaching and her dedication to her students, Ms. Blauman introduced Anna to the power of the written word and taught her that everyone (Anna included) has a story to tell. Anna’s love of all kinds of storytelling persists to this day, and she attributes its continuing influence on her life to Ms. Blauman’s kindness and skill as a teacher. Anna thinks Ms. Blauman would appreciate this book for its implicit recognition of the power of the written word and so dedicates her work to her all-time favorite teacher, with love and thanks for Ms. Blauman’s profound influence on her personal and intellectual life.

Keywords: Mask, Pandemic, Metonymy, COVID-19, Community

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified the surging spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 as a pandemic (“Archived: WHO Timeline – COVID-19”). As a result, states, institutions, and individuals alike had to adapt to the “new normal” of pandemic life; shops and schools halted operations, transportation modes ground to a halt, and all types of social spaces–restaurants, bars, clubs, arenas, and more–closed their doors to the public. In the subsequent year since the official beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, communities have continued to invent and adopt new forms of sociality in the absence of traditional social spaces, flocking to technologies like Zoom to remain connected despite the physical distance necessitated by the pandemic. Even as communities adapt to the “new normal,” however, the relative mystery surrounding this novel coronavirus continues to complicate the public’s reception of and reaction to the pandemic. For over a year, scientists have scrambled to understand the mechanisms of the virus while public officials have worked to combat the physical, social, and economic effects of this seemingly invisible threat. The efforts of the scientific community to understand the virus and produce a vaccine have been mirrored by the public’s attempts to appreciate and rationalize the effects of the virus on their individual lives, working hand and hand to produce the rhetoric of mask mandates, distancing guidelines, and testing protocols. This intersection of public concern with scientific practice has thus created a unique rhetorical situation to which we are still adapting–a rhetorical phenomenon I will explore in the following chapter.


Just as our social interactions have changed in this “new normal,” so has our use of language to describe the circumstances of the pandemic evolved. Previously uncommon terms like “social distancing” and “lockdown” have been incorporated into everyday vernacular, while phrases like “unprecedented” have become synonymous with the relative absurdity of pandemic life. Furthermore, evolving attitudes toward the pandemic and government responses to the related crises have ascribed new rhetorical significance to otherwise common words. Take, for example, the word “mask;” originally used to describe an object of disguise, the mask has become a symbol of pandemic life, taking on a new social and political identity that both rejects and affirms its traditional connotations of duplicity and deceit even as it provides a necessary visual signifier for what is the otherwise invisible threat of disease. Looking at the word “mask” as the model for evolving pandemic-related rhetoric, I argue in the following chapter that the word “mask” has become rhetorically metonymical for the COVID-19 pandemic as a whole, both representing the altered social circumstances of the pandemic and evoking via pathos the individual’s social responsibility to their community during the COVID-19 pandemic.


One of the difficulties of rhetorically situating “mask” within the context of the pandemic is the variety of historical definitions and rhetorical resonances the word “mask” already possesses. While the conflicting historical connotations of the word “mask” may complicate the current cultural definitions of “mask,” I argue that the mask’s varied historical connotations also contextualize and inform the word’s rhetorical evolution into a symbol for the pandemic as whole. The Oxford English Dictionary records 167 definitions for the word “mask,” the most widely used being “a covering worn on or held in front of the face for disguise, esp. one made of velvet, silk, etc…” (OED Online). Importantly, this first definition of mask suggests an element of concealment or disguise in the mask’s use, generating a generally negative connotation for the word “mask.” In his chapter “What’s in a Mask,” author John Picton in part attributes the western mistrust of masks to the theatrical use of the dramatic “persona” in late antiquity, in which the physical mask conflated the true self and the assumed role of the actors on stage in the minds of the audience (187). Quoting fellow scholar Anthony Giddens, Picton also acknowledges the anxiety induced in both the wearer and the observer by the mask, an anxiety enflamed by the “distancing capacity of the artifact” (188). Thus, Picton asserts, the “metaphorical utility” of the word “mask” in western literary and cultural tradition rests in the term’s evocation of concealment, distance, and duplicity, particularly in relationship to identity (189).


The word “mask,” however, has not always referred to theatrical artifacts; the Oxford English Dictionary reports the word “mask” referred to face-covering medical equipment as early as 1865, citing the Cincinnati Enquirer as an early reporter of the use of “mask” to describe “protection from the no less dangerous cohorts of fever” (OED Online). In equating the use of the mask to the connotatively positive concept of “protection,” the word “mask” likewise adopts a positive connotation–a sharp contrast to the metaphorical persona mask described above.


Importantly, the differing rhetorical resonances of the word “mask” seem connected to the fields that employ it; while “mask” might elicit a negative reaction from an audience of social scientists, “mask” might conversely evoke positive reactions from practitioners of the hard sciences, like doctors. Thus, while the word “mask” has a history of paradoxical identification, the specialized circumstances in which the word “mask” has been used has largely defined its rhetorical significance. Yet, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the rhetorical audience of the word “mask” has expanded to include the general public, who now interact with the physical artifact of the mask and the rhetorical term “mask” on a daily basis. The contradictory connotations of the word “mask” are no longer contained to the fields from which these connotations derive, and this expansion of the audience for the word “mask” has therefore allowed “mask” to adopt new rhetorical significance within the context of the pandemic.


Despite the conflicting cultural connotations of the word “mask,” the repeated use of the word “mask” in pandemic-related rhetoric has transformed the mask into a visual symbol for the pandemic as a whole. Though the repeated governmental and institutional mandates to “mask up” are motivated by the objective medical concern of curbing the spread of COVID-19, this repetition of the word “mask” within pandemic-response rhetoric has allowed the word “mask” to symbolize the social and political responses to the pandemic. In other words, our repeated exposure via the news, media, and our communities to the term “mask” has allowed the term “mask” to metonymically represent the complexity of the disease and the various complex mechanisms with which institutions and communities combat the effects of the pandemic. In his article “Four Master Tropes,” scholar Kenneth Burke equates metonymy to “reduction,” declaring metonymy’s most basic function is to “convey some incorporeal or intangible state in terms of the corporeal or tangible” (424). Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, rhetors have used the simple command to “wear a mask” to “reduce” the vast complexity of the pandemic response to a simple, tangible, and most importantly actionable item: wearing a mask.


This metonymy of the term “mask” is especially effective or even necessary given the invisibility of the disease itself; although the coronavirus is a physical entity that provokes distinctly physical responses in victims, the virus itself is nevertheless invisible to our macro human senses and wreaks havoc on the relatively intangible spheres of mental, spiritual, social, and economic health. The wide-spread effects of the pandemic across physical and nonphysical spaces thus necessitate this metonymical negotiation of the pandemic for general audiences, bringing into view that which is otherwise invisible to the naked eye.


In addition to providing via metonymy visibility to the threat of the virus, the rhetorical function of the mask within pandemic-era speech encourages social responsibility among community members by emphasizing the sense of community generated by the mask wearing. Scholars Daniel Poirion and Caroline Weber contend in their article “Mask and Allegorical Personification” the mask “signals an intention… to participate in some way in a coded system of relations” (13). The adherence to (or rejection of) wide-spread mask mandates literalizes this literary perspective on masks by aligning the mask-wearer with the institution who issued the mandate (an alignment that is admittedly complicated by the current tumultuous political climate in the United States). For example, Wake Forest University’s pandemic response strategy is marketed under the title “Our Way Forward,” with the “our” appealing to the student body’s sense of community as the university implores students to continue “wearing masks” (Our Way Forward). Thus, the term “mask” epitomizes Burke’s concept of metonymy by reducing the pandemic as a whole to a concrete physical symbol–the mask itself–even as it generates a sense of community and social responsibility in a socially distanced time.


The COVID-19 pandemic has afflicted the globe for over a year, and a return to the “old normal” still seems far away. Despite the uniquely challenging circumstances of the pandemic across multiple social spheres, communities and individuals are still finding ways to adapt to the “new normal,” including adaptations to everyday language. Specifically, the term “mask” has come to exemplify both the pandemic and responses to the pandemic through metonymy, calling for a sense of community despite these socially distanced times and providing a tangible visual symbol for the virus. How the rhetorical significance of the word “mask” will continue to develop over the remainder of this pandemic is yet to discovered; I imagine, however, that the future of “mask” as a rhetorical term will be just as varied and influential as its past.

Works Cited

 “Archived: WHO Timeline – COVID-19.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news/item/27-04-2020-who-timeline—covid-19.

Burke, Kenneth. “Four Master Tropes.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 3, no. 4, 1941, pp. 421–438. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4332286. Accessed 21 Mar. 2021.

“mask n.3.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2020, www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/11125. Accessed 20 February 2021.

“mask n.7.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2020, www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/11125. Accessed 20 February 2021

Our Way Forward, 12 Mar. 2021, ourwayforward.wfu.edu/.

Picton, John. “What’s in a Mask.” African Languages and Cultures, vol. 3, no. 2, 1990, pp. 181–JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1771721. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.

Poirion, Daniel, and Caroline Weber. “Mask and Allegorical Personification.” Yale French Studies, no.95, 1999, pp. 13–32. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3040743. Accessed 20 Feb. 2021.



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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Anna Lawrence is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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