Before reading this post, I want to point out that this only reflects my own personal opinion on the vocabulary we are using at the moment. I completely accept that some people might feel differently.
In recent months, we have seen vocabulary items which were not commonly used in the English language becoming a complete part of our lexis. Not a day goes by when we do not utter or read words or phrases such as ‘lockdown’, self-isolation’ or ‘social distancing’. As I've been using these words myself, I started thinking about their meaning as well as the associations and connotations they might carry for me. It is often forgotten that meaning goes beyond the definition and more often than not the importance of a word will be based on what it makes us feel or what we associate it with. I have selected five words and phrases to discuss here.
Covid-19 has become a noun used worldwide. It stands for Coronavirus disease 2019. In the global current crisis, new ways of using existing words and phrases are settling in our everyday language. These words and phrases have been around for a long time, however, they were not commonly used except in some very specific contexts, well until now. To me all these words sound very war-like and at times it feels like we are starring in our own science-fiction movie, expecting Will Smith to jump out of somewhere to fight this invisible enemy!
Jokes aside, Covid-19 sounds like a code word a soldier would say to talk about a secret mission his troop has been assigned to. I can see why there was a need for the abbreviation considering that the virus is all that is being talked about and maybe it was a deliberate intention to have it sound so army-like, so that people would understand the urgency and importance of it.
Another word that slowly crept up in our speech is self-isolation or self-isolating. This is not a new word. According to Social change and linguistic change: the language of Covid-19 published on https://public.oed.com/blog/the-language-of-covid-19/ website, the term started being recorded from 1834, but it would refer to countries deciding to detach themselves from the rest of the world based on political and economic reasons. Today, in this current crisis, it means that an individual or groups of people decide to stay at home and cut themselves from the rest of society in order to prevent catching or giving a highly contagious virus.
The next word I will mention here is lockdown. This apocalyptic term refers to countries shutting down in a bid not to overwhelm health systems in said countries. The current lockdown limits movements and is becoming a social responsibility everyone has to observe. The term lockdown is defined as: ‘a situation in which people are not allowed to enter or leave a building or area freely because of an emergency’ (https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/lockdown)
This definition fits the purpose of the current situation, however, to me, it implies a temporary measure until the problem is solved. Emphasis on the term temporary. Maybe it could be a reason why so many people have had problems observing the rules of the lockdown as it is far from temporary. Maybe when governments started using such terms, they should have thought of the connotations and associations people would make with these terms, them being positive or negative. Also the term lockdown evokes a serious state of emergency. However, we can still go to the shops or go for a run. The behaviour and the term do not match.
This brings me to social distancing. This term was first used in 1957 to describe people who were aloof and would choose to keep their distance from other people emotionally rather than physically (https://public.oed.com/blog/the-language-of-covid-19/). Now the term refers to physically keeping our distance away from other people in order to avoid infections. I have a real problem with what social distancing implies. To me, it evokes the idea of exclusion, of groups of people not included in the crisis, from the English government daily briefing not having a sign language interpreter there to the carers working in care homes not being supplied with protective equipment. The government uses a term of exclusion which is in clear contrast with what we have seen happening in communities all around the country. People coming together to help the most vulnerable and the whole country clapping every week to show their appreciation to the NHS. Why isn’t this practice simply called: physical distancing? I saw this term in a newspaper article as an alternative and I immediately felt it was definitely easier to understand and therefore easier to observe.
The last phrase I will talk about is probably the one that makes me the angriest: great leveller. At the beginning of the pandemic, the media used this phrase to talk about the fact that the virus did not discriminate and would infect people regardless of social status, the rich and the poor equally affected. This is, to me, the biggest misconception I have ever heard. Although it is true that the virus does not discriminate, I’m sure every country has had their fair share of high profile cases that made the front page news, the conditions in which people are dealing with the virus are not equal. It is impossible to say that Tom Hanks and a homeless person dealing with the virus have equal chances of treatment and getting better. It is wrong to assume that being in lockdown in a 6 bedroom house with a huge garden and a small flat with no outside space is the same. And lastly, it is dangerous to think that everyone will benefit from social distancing. Great leveller implies that the clock will be set at zero for everyone, everyone on the same level, but this is far from the truth and using this phrase is misleading and may make people living and working in better situations assume that the virus is the only threat people have to deal with.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, these are my own thoughts and beliefs on the language we have been using in this country for the past few weeks. Scroll down to comment and let me know your thoughts. Stay safe!