About a week before Christmas, during one of its periodic teleconference briefings that have the approximate aesthetic of a cheap 1960s science fiction movie imagining an Orwellian future, the White House COVID-19 Response Team again gathered to talk to the people. The government appeared ready to disown half the country.

On Dec. 17, with video feeds of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky hovering over either shoulder, response team coordinator Jeffrey Zients sat calmly before a pandemic-weary public whom he addressed not as a whole but as two halves fundamentally at odds with one another: the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

“We are intent on not letting omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated,” Zients said. “You’ve done the right thing, and we will get through this.” But for those who have chosen not to receive a vaccination, Zients had a different message, saying, “For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.”

The language stung: “yourselves,” “your,” “you.” Like many pandemic-era bureaucrats, Zients sought to make his scolding sound personal. No one expected Zients, a former Obama administration official, to rise to Churchillian rhetorical heights, but his strikingly divisive words and manner did not even approximate former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who once ran a presidential campaign built on the premise that there were “two Americas” that needed to be united. For the Biden administration, unity is too much of a chore. Best to cut the dead weight and let the virtuous soldier on.

New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi expressed bafflement on Twitter over Zients’s dark prophecy, but the White House stood by its new role as a sandwich board-clad sidewalk preacher. “The truth is the truth,” Biden chief of staff Ron Klain tweeted.

Well, truth may be truth, but it matters how you say it. (Weren’t some of the earliest criticisms of former President Donald Trump over his “tone”?) Most families and neighborhoods are made up of both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, but few would, in ordinary conversation, predict that their family members or fellow citizens will fall ill, die, or contribute to the collapse of the healthcare system. (“Jim, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and if the hospitals are overrun, it’s on you!”) There are more charitable ways to get your message across, especially during the holiday season.

Zients’s divide-and-conquer rhetoric is merely the latest example of how strange, off-putting, and cumbersome our civic and cultural leaders’ word choices have become during the pandemic. Their angry, twisty, and often very cold language reveals a deep estrangement from the way ordinary people live and how they talk about themselves and their neighbors.

About a week before the response team’s teleconference blunder, Fauci was again out to reassure the public — well, the part of the public he likes and wants to help, the vaccinated public — that the coming holiday season could be enjoyed more or less as normal, but his phrasing suggested someone who had only recently become acquainted with the very concept of the holiday season. “When you get vaccinated and you have a vaccinated group and you are in an indoor setting, you can enjoy, as we have traditionally over the years, dinners and gatherings within the home with people who are vaccinated,” Fauci said in an interview on the Washington Post Live, adding that hosts should ask for evidence of their guests’ vaccination status. Between his weirdly pedantic itemization of what is involved in such celebrations (“dinners and gatherings within the home”), his strained reference to these activities being things that have been done “traditionally over the years,” and his clueless assumption that your grumpy uncle, daffy aunt, or doddering grandfather will take kindly to being essentially “carded” at a holiday party, Fauci sounded a bit like a Martian who had recently been debriefed on the behavior of earthlings.

This was not the first time Fauci’s language suggested that he has spent too much time immersed in data on variants and too little time on the things he has been asking us to give up for two years. Namely, life. Upon issuing an edict approving of the continuation of Halloween festivities for 2021, his comments had a similar stilted quality. “You’re outdoors for the most part, at least when my children were out there doing trick-or-treating,” Fauci told CNN, which might lead some to wonder when or where, in this fair land of ours, trick-or-treating has ever been held indoors? Then there was Thanksgiving, which, Fauci told ABC News, was A-OK for those who had been vaccinated. “If you’re vaccinated, and hopefully you’ll be boosted, too, and your family is, you can enjoy a typical Thanksgiving meal, Thanksgiving holiday with your family,” he said. But some may wonder: Just what would an untypical Thanksgiving meal look like? One without mashed potatoes? Or one that just takes place over Zoom? Either way, Fauci wasn’t waiting another month for the Elf on the Shelf to do his thing.

Just this week, Fauci issued an injunction against attending New Year’s Eve parties that might include “30, 40, 50 people celebrating” (horrors!). And he said the United States should consider allowing only vaccinated people to fly. The advice was not only ill-timed, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s shortening of quarantine times for the infected, but once again, it suggested that Fauci was just a bit out of it. For most New Year’s Eve revelers, a party that only attracts 50 people or fewer would probably be considered something of a failure. And of course airplanes, thanks to their ventilation systems, are the opposite of superspreader sites.

Perhaps it’s too easy to cast Fauci in the role of the absent-minded professor. And we have no doubt that his children did indeed celebrate Halloween and that he has, presumably, donned a festive cardigan or two and carved many a turkey in his day. Yet Fauci’s awkward language shows the consequences of a few decades too many in Washington. Like other members of the pandemic-era ruling class, he seems to consider people’s interest in continuing their way of life to be a nuisance. That’s why he doesn’t speak intuitively or easily about things most of us take for granted, such as Christmas party-going and trick-or-treating. And if he can’t speak about those things intuitively, how can he be expected to give those things any credence when considering the collateral damage of pandemic-era measures?

In fact, the pandemic has been rife with alterations to our language, or revivals of heretofore obscure terminology, that have proven both unhelpful and needlessly obscure. “In-person learning” is what would have been called “school” by earlier generations, while “virtual learning” is what might have been known as “skipping school.” The creepy term “social distancing” seems to have fallen somewhat out of vogue as people have demonstrated that they will, at the earliest opportunity, gladly crowd stadiums and concert halls, but perhaps the initial public health goal of keeping people away from each other would have been more easily accomplished if officials hadn’t used clinical terminology to instill unnatural social anxiety in people, as if hermit-dom would henceforth be considered the gold standard of healthy living.

A certain maddening vagueness has crept into language during the pandemic. “Stay safe” has been adopted by all to mean to avoid the coronavirus, forever — the verb “stay” implies a period of perpetual safety-seeking, without end. “Stay safe” if you’re doing something risky, such as going outdoors or speaking with other humans. The now-ubiquitous “fully vaccinated” is a term that has a certain ongoing utility: After all, absent a specific number, “fully” could encompass an indefinite number of shots. Not coincidentally, the pandemic has also seen increased prominence given to the almost comically politically correct terms “pregnant person” and “birthing person” in lieu of that most precious of nouns: “mother.”

What do our leaders accomplish in making everything sound so clinical and unfamiliar? Perhaps, in the administration’s effort to “build back better,” many officials wish to wean the people off of their old ways of talking about things — a return to “in-person learning” doesn’t sound quite as fun as going back to school, so the term encourages an acceptance of online education.

Fortunately, the weird language of the last two years remains as alien to most of us as Zients’s ruthlessly unforgiving hard line. So let’s say it together: Our children go to school. We can’t wait for Mother’s Day. And we know a few unvaccinated people — and they’re not enemies to be addressed with all but a wagging finger, but our brothers and sisters.

Peter Tonguette is a frequent contributor to the American Conservative, National Review, and Wall Street Journal.