For a year now, people have been telling me that COVID is not just the flu. That’s how they always say it, “just the flu.” I always think to myself, “Just?” Used that way, “just” implies that the flu is no big deal. “Meh, it’s only the flu.” According to prevention magazine, millions of people get the flu every year, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized for it, and tens of thousands die from it. How is that just? I’ve had the flu. I survived, but I was miserable. My daughter had the flu once. She survived, but that might have been the longest week of my life. What’s just about that? Coronavirus isn’t the flu, and it’s deadly serious, but that’s no reason to minimize the flu.
The other place I frequently hear “just” used in this way is, “Oh, he’s just a friend.” Just a friend? Really? I understand drawing a distinction between a romantic relationship and a friendship, but why belittle friendship? Friends are important. Aristotle dedicated two whole books of his Nicomachean Ethics to friendship, and I think it’s the best stuff he ever wrote. Plenty of people live good lives without romance. I’m not sure anyone has ever lived a good life without friends. If you’re out with someone and someone else asks if you’re dating, don’t just your friend. Celebrate the friendship.
I don’t have the time to do a full etymological study of the word just. But, it seems to me that almost all the other ways we use just are extremely positive and they all have something to do with justice. A just decision is the right decision. Just compensation is the proper compensation. Just desserts is an appropriate punishment. Just the way it is means something we cannot change. The exceptions are when we use it to minimize the importance of something, like the flu or friendship, and when we use it to mean close, “She just made it at the buzzer.” I could see these uses being connected. The idea of something being little or small.
One other way we use just is to mean pure, as in no additives. “Is that an omelet? No, it’s just eggs.” If I squint, I can see a connection to the other ways we use just. Justice is related to fairness and appropriateness. Things are fair and appropriate when they aren’t clouded by outside factors. And just a friend is a friend without romance added. It doesn’t explain just the flu, though. And it doesn’t explain why it feels negative when applied to friendship and influenza. Does anyone have any ideas? I’d really like to know.