Flatten the curve

Flatten the curve is an idiom that has come into use very recently. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words, or other parts of speech is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as in a blue moon, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, in the same boat, bite the bullet, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the idiom flatten the curve, where it came from, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To flatten the curve means to mitigate how quickly an illness is passed in a population or to slow the progression of a disease in a population. The idea behind flatten the curve is not necessarily to avoid transmission altogether, but to slow the rate of transmission. If the rate of transmission of a disease is slowed, then health care and life-saving measures will be available for more people, because not as many people will be ill at the same time. The curve referred to in flatten the curve is a high peak on a graph that represents the amount of population that has the disease. The expression has been traced to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paper published in 2007 that looked at possible outcomes for an influenza pandemic. A particular graph in the paper showed the amount of people who would be infected if no mitigation steps were taken compared with the amount of people who would be infected if mitigation steps were taken like closing schools and promoting social isolation. In 2020, the graph reappeared on Twitter, and social media users began to refer to the mitigation process as flatten the curve. Related phrases are flattens the curve, flattened the curve, flattening the curve. It will be interesting to chart the use of the idiom flatten the curve to see if it will eventually be used to mean the mitigation of any situation, not just one that involves the transmission of disease.


An Israeli doctor in northern Italy says the country is close to “flattening the curve” with some new treatments appearing to be helping some COVID-19 patients, offering a rare glimmer of hope in the hard-hit epicenter of the global coronavirus pandemic. (The Times of Israel)

In the “flatten the curve” image, there are distinct predictions made about the effects of two different actions—doing nothing versus social distancing. (Psychology Today)

For the next 30 to 90 days, the degree to which we can flatten the curve is the most important challenge, and we’re seeing countries, U.S. states, and smaller communities start to respond aggressively. (Fortune Magazine)

Leave a Comment