I have been trying to tell the world for a long time that slang is a rich, creative and complex feature of language, and one which has great social and cultural significance. I have argued (again and again) against those who want to ban or censor it and have advocated instead teaching young people about it so that they can judge for themselves its qualities and refine their own usage of it where necessary. What I have hesitated to do is to actually ‘teach slang’ to younger learners, knowing that it is still a controversial (linguists use terms like ‘stigmatised’ and ‘transgressive’) variety which makes many parents, teachers and authority figures uncomfortable. Connie Chang, writing for the National Geographic asked me whether it could ever be possible to teach slang to younger children without risk. In her published article, quoting experts in the field, she describes some interesting developments which suggest a positive answer.
Here is Connie’s article, followed by some further thoughts and some links which illustrate and explore the issues raised. I hope these, along with other articles on this site (put ‘slang‘, ‘MLE‘, ‘youth language‘ into the search box or check the tags at the foot of the page) will help students and teachers, and language-buffs, too, who are ready to explore the language ecosystem in which slang flourishes and operates…
Experimenting with language and inventing new language begins naturally in children as soon as they move from making noises to uttering more complex sounds. The creation by babies of seemingly meaningful sound combinations and, soon after, approximations of words is known as jargoning. Toddlers will make up words, participate in babytalk and banter and soon join their older siblings and other family members in inventing nicknames for objects in the home – part of the private domestic language known as familect. As young people encounter new experiences in growing up – dating, grappling with parents and teachers, following fashions and admiring celebrities, and experiment with new behaviour – they often feel they need a new language to describe these things and to convey the novel and intense feelings they have. Adults don’t have a vocabulary for ‘jumping up and grabbing someone’s sweater from behind’, (‘glomping’) or ‘coolest boy in the class’, (‘peng-ting’) so kids need to create their own. Young people also don’t want adults to know what they are up to or what they are feeling, hence the online and messaging codes and abbreviations (‘POS’ for ‘parent over shoulder’, ‘FOMO’ for fear of missing out) and the new, exotic and, for parents and teachers, impenetrable language. In the UK and the US there have been many not-entirely-serious guides for parents to help them…
Slang’s power and resonance is that it’s an alternative, subversive language and that for people who don’t understand it, slang can make them uncomfortable and can feel like a violation of social norms. The 19th century US author Ambrose Bierce defined slang in his Devil’s Dictionary as follows: ‘The grunt of the human hog (Pignoramus intolerabilis) with an audible memory. The speech of one who utters with his tongue what he thinks with his ear, and feels the pride of a creator in accomplishing the feat of a parrot. A means (under Providence) of setting up as a wit without a capital of sense.’ He may have been being ironic but this was certainly the view of many at that time, witness this report of a Victorian lecture…
It is sometimes hard to observe the impartiality required of someone who poses as an expert in one or other field. For me it has been particularly difficult to embrace – or to feign – objectivity in trying to record and analyse the language controversies of the last two years. Tracking the rancorous, divisive language of the campaign for Brexit, the gaslighting and firehosing indulged in by Donald Trump’s media supporters and, more recently still, the mixed messaging, pivoting and bamboozling (to use the kindest words I can think of ) accompanying the UK government’s managing of the pandemic, has sorely tested the fraying, threadbare notion of even-handedness (itself unsurprisingly mocked these days as ‘both-sidesism’ or ‘whataboutery’).
In fact, of course, anyone reading my posts (elsewhere on this site) on the toxic terminology of populism and the ‘coronaspeak’ generated by the virus will quickly see that I have fallen short, on many occasions allowing my impatience and disapproval to show through a veneer of scholarly restraint.
I did not even want to engage with the latest controversy to erupt into the UK’s national conversation. I am, at a considerable distance, not in favour of hereditary monarchies. I try never to read the press reports of the behaviour of royal family members, and, above all, never to be tempted to comment, however flagrant the untruths being traded by politicians or the unfairness of the campaigns mounted by the tabloids or the expressions of envy, spite and malice by ‘royal correspondents’ and the population at large.
In any case, who am I to pronounce on such subjects? An obscure lexicographer and sometime teacher of languages, a very long way down the lines of succession and without a constituency or a following. Nevertheless, among the invariably hostile treatments of some of the younger royals, I could not help noticing some which seem to be based on linguistic discriminations, language-based prejudices and false assumptions about how language works. Thus it was (horrible expression, I apologise) that I agreed to talk to Bridie Pearson-Brown of the Daily Mail about this week’s ‘bombshell interview’ between Oprah Winfrey and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, hoping I admit, not just to offer some objective comments, but perhaps to redress the balance of ‘analysis’ in the poor Duchess’s favour.
Here is the article in question, which appeared halfway down a front page containing several dozen articles focusing on the same celebrity, most of them – no, I think all of them – overtly or implicitly hostile.
This wasn’t in fact the first time I had commented on Meghan Markle’s way of speaking. Last time, too, I tried to counter the xenophobic assumptions and the ‘misogynoir’ sneering, the framing of her coming to terms with her changing linguistic surroundings as something insincere or evidence of bad faith. That article, from May 2020, is here. Its precepts still stand…although predictably Prince Harry was yesterday accused of ‘sounding American’ (the expert ‘analysis’ of his intonation and word-choices was wrong: he simply softened a couple of British consonants in accommodating Oprah)…
Why Meghan sounds American again: Linguistic expert reveals Duchess of Sussex has her native accent back as she’s no longer displaying ‘linguistic accommodation’
By Bridie Pearson-Jones for MailOnline
Meghan Markle’s accent has returned to her natural Californian as she is ‘relaxed’ and is no longer displaying ‘linguistic accommodation’, an expert revealed.
Speaking to Femail, Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King’s College, London explained: ‘There’s a thing called linguistic accommodation where you change the way you talk to fit in with the people around you.
‘This is very very common even within the UK, if you’re speaking to a Geordie, someone from Liverpool or an Australian you begin to very slightly change your accent to become closer to them.’
During Meghan’s time in the UK, fans noted that her accent appeared to becoming more British as she spent more time in the country.
Viewers said Meghan Markle sounded British in a 2018 ITV documentary, Queen of Her World, where she appeared to reunite with her wedding dress
Tony continued: ‘For most people if they’re authentic and sincere they will keep their basic accent with slight changes. I’ve seen friends from London move to Newcastle – and you’ll start to hear bits of comments of the local accent.
‘It might take a normal person six months or a year for their accent to change, but when you’re a celebrity and have to be on show and are super self-conscious about image it will happen faster. I don’t think its surprising that it would be a more conscious choice for someone like Meghan, as she’s tries to project herself in a way that will fit in with environment.’
Tony, who knew Princess Diana ‘slightly’, added that he doesn’t imagine Prince Harry’s accent will become American despite the move to California – but the current generation of royals have eased their accents to sound more like a common Brit.
‘The British ruling classes are very attached, so I can’t imagine Meghan’s husband sounding American,’ he said. That said, since Princess Diana joined the family, the royals have modified their natural accent to sound less posh.
‘I was very conscious when she changed her accent, then William and Harry did too. They use the ‘non-posh’ glottal stop – so they pronounce words like ‘bottle’ as ‘bot-al’ to sounds less like the extreme British upper class. This is why the young royals sound very different to the Queen or Prince Philip.
‘Now Meghan is back in California, she’s reverting to her natural accent. It maybe not the same as her parents or what she had as a young girl – but it’s a glamorous, educated, prestigious Californian accent which is, much more relaxed than a British accent or even an American east coast accent.
‘Nobody can tell if she’s made a conscious decision to change her voice, but she’s very bright and aware and under intense scrutiny so I think it would be understandable if she did.’
activism, slang and politics collide, and a slur goes viral
UK feature-writer Sirin Kale took to Twitter last week to voice a complaint heard often recently, particularly from the ‘left’ and ‘centre-left’: ‘I would really like it if people stopped using “anti-woke” and “woke” as lazy journalistic descriptors when they can’t be bothered to actually spell out what a person’s views are. Say what they believe and the reader can decide for ourselves what we think of it.’ In the ensuing conversation @yoyomorena was blunt: ‘The sooner we can understand ‘woke’ as the anti-black, racist code it has become, the sooner we can get back to normal lives.’ Yesterday, on the same platform, a query by Tom Whyman pointed up the way a once-proud self-ascription by the socially aware had fully transited to become the go-to pejorative for conservative journalists and politicians, fighting back, as they see it, against an array of enemies: ‘Is it me or have the right wing press in the past few weeks started using the word ‘woke’ as if it refers to an organised political tendency, as opposed to just a loosely arranged constellation of things they don’t like?’ As if to furnish instant corroboration a Telegraph headline of the same date announced…
Citizens advice service’ launches to help employees in woke workplaces
The organisation will provide help to ‘casualties of the culture wars’
London journalist Kate Ng had asked me about the same red-flag-buzzword last week and her subsequent piece in the Independent is here…
As it has morphed from positive to negative in its connotations, (by 2019 Urban Dictionary‘s top definitions were emphatically negative: ‘The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue’ and ‘Deluded or fake awareness’) woke has spawned elaborations along the way: woke-washing, by analogy with whitewashing and greenwashing, was coined to describe brands attempting to use, or at least proclaim, a concern for social justice as a marketing strategy; wokerati, woke-worthies and woke warriors dismiss critics of white privilege and social inequality, while Wokeahontas was invented in the US to define and mock a female enthusiast for native American rights.
The question that Kate and I had discussed briefly has not, I think, been raised before: must the victims of sneering and jeering by powerful opponents abandon their identity label, attempt somehow to reclaim it, or find a substitute for it? I canvassed an assortment of people, most of them it must be said not identifying as conservatives, on possible candidates to replace ‘woke’. Nobody suggested the words that progressives of my own generation once embraced; ‘radical’ or ‘liberationist’, but this is no surprise. The first now sounds ambiguous while the second was appropriated by neocons and conservatives in the US more than a decade ago. No real workable favourites emerged and no consensus was reached, but the formulations we considered are gathered in this wordcloud for what it’s worth…
An earlier article in the Guardian traces in some detail the trajectory that ‘woke’ has undergone, with useful comments on the controversies accompanying its mutation…
In March, after two months of articles in the conservative press excoriating the ‘woke agenda’ and its followers, came news, via the Sun, that steps were being taken to curb the influence of leftwing comedy…
The annual end-of-year competition by publishers, lexicographers and linguists to nominate a Word Of The Year, thereby excite debate and, just perhaps, sell some dictionaries into an exhausted and impoverished marketplace took on a new poignancy, if that’s the right word, in 2020. The usual pontificators and publicists set out their selections from among the cloud of neologisms and repurposings generated by COVID, Brexit and BLM. Oxford Dictionaries broke with tradition, having listed their contenders, to announce that no single term could do justice to the year – a sentiment I very much agree with.
The same roundup of 2020’s language novelties was taking place in other places. Here’s my friend Licia Corbolante‘s Italian perspective…
Elsewhere on this site are my own successive reports on #coronaspeak as it has developed and mutated since February. Some of my examples (in fact rather a lot of my examples) were featured in a late piece in the Independent…
For francophone friends here is a French perspective on the unprecedented conjunction of Brexit and COVID facing the UK. In it my collaborator RTL/RF1 correspondent Marie Billon also comments on Word Of The Year with a momentary intervention by me…
Much as I appreciate Licia’s and the Independent’s wordclouds, in signing off I couldn’t do better than gratefully reproduce the Guardian’s version, featuring the terms chosen by its readers to epitomise this plague year…
…oh, and by the way, my word of the year, for what it’s worth, is vaccine.
On the last day of the year (and, though few have noticed, of the decade) I was given, by Euronews TV‘s Good Morning Europe programme one more chance to pontificate on the subject…
An update on the unusual role of an ‘expert linguist witness’
Elsewhere on this site I have written about the ‘street slang‘ used by gang members and other young people in the UK, a variety of language also featuring in the lyrics of Drill and other rap music genres. In October 2020 I was invited by the Aston Institute for Forensic Linguistics to talk about my role in translating and commenting on this language in the context of criminal investigations and trials.
My contribution to this event, with those of other specialists, together with some answers to follow-up questions from the virtual audience can be accessed here…
The prosecution of actual or supposed gang members, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds and are victims themselves of coercion, trafficking, even modern slavery, is hugely controversial, as are attempts by some law enforcers to criminalise Drill music, its performers and its enthusiasts and the language that it uses.
Rap lyrics appear to be poetic or literary texts, and may be fictional, but many professional rappers and their amateur imitators routinely mix creative fiction conventions, metaphors and imagery with real-life facts, introducing real names and references to real places, incidents and actions for ‘authenticity’ and effect. They also frequently borrow or steal images, words and whole sequences from other rappers, and impersonate actors in the real world such as killers or drug dealers who they have learned about from media reports or by word of mouth on the street.
Even more confusingly, many young rap enthusiasts nowadays use the language of rap and its lyrical conventions when they are communicating in quite different contexts. I have encountered many examples of messages between friends, entries in journals or prison notebooks, editing an online persona for chatting in forums, etc. that use words, phrases and references familiar from lyrics as used in audio/video music performances.
There are now academics and activists seeking to question official attitudes to the policing of youth crime and to question the validity of presenting rap or rap-related lyrics as evidence of wrongdoing. There are also currently many agencies, charities and other stakeholders working with young victims, young perpetrators and their families and friends in order to analyse, publicise and seek solutions for the social stresses that foster gang culture. For my small part, I’m concerned, though, that these efforts, even the well organised periodic campaigns by police to control and reduce ‘knife crime,’ are still piecemeal and only partially coordinated across the country.
In November I talked on the same subject at Warwick University‘s Applied Linguistics Seminar…
One month on, and a small sign that mainstream media may be paying a little more attention to gang realities…
Finally, Krept and Konan’s 2019 commentary on the driller’s culture and attempts to ban drill lyrics. Essential reading/listening for anyone struggling to untangle the unresolved complexities of the issue…
In 1821 the poet Shelley claimed that poets were – are – ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ I would not for a moment dispute that, but would add others to the list of unsung heroes, essential to our cultural wellbeing but toiling in obscurity and anonymity. Lexicographers, despite Dr Johnson‘s dismissal of us as ‘harmless drudges’, translators, interpreters, editors all deserve the gratitude of everyone who reads, perhaps even deserve a metaphorical moment in the sun.
I was given another chance to venture into the late summer sunshine by translation specialist and editor Isabella Massardo who asked me about life as a drudge and about other topical issues...
I was also interviewed by Marie Billon, UK correspondent for RTL and RFI, about the latest British ‘portmanteau’ acronyms and jargon, now attempting to describe the co-occurrence of the pandemic and the final stages of the Brexit process (my contribution, partly in rusty French, is at 14 minutes in)…
There are other hitherto little-known or unknown linguists – teachers, students, language enthusiasts among them – who also deserve our attention. One such, Sameer Merali, interviewed another such – Zobia, a real life user of youth slang – and me for his SLANGuage podcast series…
In October I took part in a debate on current language issues, hosted by Cumberland House. The discussion ranged across the language of ethnicity, diversity and inclusion, the language of youth and the notion of ‘political correctness’ and the policing of comedy and creativity…
To return to the poor lexicographer’s standing, or lack of it, an eminent practitioner of the craft, Jeremy Butterfield, sent this resonant quote on the subject…
“Dictionary-making, while it obviously demands high scholarly qualifications, is commonly regarded as the graveyard of academic careers, and it is precisely those who have what it takes to whom we would be most loath to commend such an undertaking.” – Prof. W. Atkinson (1902-1992), Glasgow University 1961
Ironically, the self-isolation I have been practising for the last seven months did not mean that I was without work. Periods of WFH alternated with forays into an empty city. Youth crime subsided at first but did not disappear during the pandemic: importantly for me the gathering and analysis of evidence and preparations for trials involving gang violence continued, and I continued to help defence teams and prosecutors to interpret the language used in messaging and Drill lyrics generated by suspects living in gang environments (as described in earlier posts on this site). In April I wrote an article for the Magistrates Association about the relationships between language, youth and crime*
During my time in quarantine I continued to record and comment on the language of the pandemic itself as well as the toxic terminology of populist politics and racism. At the beginning of September the team at LexisPodcast gave me a fresh opportunity to talk about these topics (my comments are in the second half of the recording)…
I had time, too, to write a profile of the humble, enigmatic London outsider artist, known only as Albert, for Raw Vision magazine…
‘Bad language’ and why you should really try to keep up
Studies have shown that the language of the court can be intimidating and perplexing for some of those who pass through it. We naturally hope that all of those involved in legal proceedings have sufficient command of a language in common to conduct their business successfully. There are times, however, when language barriers become apparent and it becomes necessary to interpret, to translate – foreign tongues used by other nationalities of course – but also new and unfamiliar language originating in our own communities.
Language is something that we tend to take for granted; it’s a facility that every human possesses and uses constantly. In the workplace we have to depend on a shared understanding of language, whether formal, legalistic or conversational. Professional linguists, however, see language differently and distinguish not only between informal, conversational speech and formal or technical language, but between a ‘dialect’ – the language of a region, a ‘sociolect’ – the language of a particular group such as a specific profession, ethnic group, age-group or social class, and even an ‘idiolect’, the words, phrases and turns of speech favoured by a single individual.
The closer we look at the language people are using, the more potential there is for misunderstanding. There is the problem of keeping abreast of rapid changes – of learning new terms, making sense of popular entertainment catchphrases and reality TV references, for example (‘Love Island’ springs to mind). Perhaps the problem is most acute when it’s the language of another generation. Parents, teachers, police officers, too, struggle to make sense of the latest playground slang, gamers’ terminology and the bizarre expressions uttered by music fans, fashionistas and YouTube stars. Abbreviations used in texting and on social media – YOLO, FOMO, SMH (‘you only live once’, ‘fear of missing out’, ‘shaking my head’) can also be baffling for older observers – not surprisingly because this sort of language is not designed to be understood by outsiders. Insiders use slang as a badge of identity to show that they belong to a particular group, equally it is used to exclude the people they don’t want to associate with; the old, the boring, the unfashionable and the unglamorous. Many users of slang, though, are surprisingly sensitive to what linguists call ‘appropriacy’ – matching their choice of language to the social situation – and wouldn’t employ a highly informal style in a formal setting such as a court. Problems arise when evidence involves language recorded in very different contexts.
If you struggle to understand the teenagers and young people around you when they call their schoolfriend a ‘durkboi’ or a ‘wasteman’ (both mean useless male) and try to cadge some ‘p’s’, ‘gwop’ or ‘Lizzies’ (all slang for money), you are not alone. There is a shared slang vocabulary that has established itself throughout the UK, often replacing colourful older usages (such as rhyming slang: ‘once a week’, a synonym of ‘beak’ or magistrate has disappeared) or local dialect. Popular words include ‘piff’, ‘peng’, ‘dench’, ‘gully’, all used to express admiration, ‘bare’ meaning many (as in ‘bare feds’ or ‘bare jakes‘, lots of police), ‘bait’ meaning obvious, ‘bruv’ and ‘fam’ denoting one’s friends or group. ‘Chirpsin’, ‘linkin’ and ‘lipsin’ refer to flirting, dating and kissing respectively.
New terms are being coined all the time because novelty is what gives the words their edgy, progressive quality, but, contrary to what many people assume, slang doesn’t fall out of use for years, it just moves from an older to a younger cohort; as it’s abandoned by the most self-consciously ‘cool’ it is picked up by the latecomers. A few parents and some teachers have managed to learn some of these terms, but trying to use them will inevitably provoke ridicule. In a 2017 survey only 4% of parents were able to successfully translate messaging slang, while 65% tried but repeatedly failed or misunderstood.
Slang, whether used covertly or out in the open, is a feature of all societies and languages and of all age-groups, too. It’s well established that those engaged in criminal activity, lawlessness or antisocial behaviour develop their own secret languages in order to communicate privately and to prevent outsiders from understanding these communications. Teenagers and young adults likewise develop their own slangs and restricted terminologies and often include vocabulary coined by gang members and criminals because it seems glamorous and daring. In the US and the UK highly informal youth-based dialects have arisen and the terminology in question is also used in music lyrics and on social media. The language of US rap and hip-hop music and UK–based varieties such as Grime or Drill music mixes AfricanCaribbean influences, especially Jamaican ‘patois’, with local colloquial speech and will be familiar to many young people, even those who are not engaged in antisocial or criminal activity. This kind of language is very rarely picked up by mainstream media, is not normally recorded in standard dictionaries and is difficult for linguists to collect. I do so by monitoring online messaging and online discussions among slang enthusiasts or slang users, examining music lyrics and, most importantly, by interviewing slang users themselves (as slang is still more a spoken than written variety) and asking them to give or send me examples of language used by them and their peers. Slang is not deficient language; it performs its functions efficiently in conveying meaning. However, because it is an underground, alternative code it is not subject to rules and authorities. This can often result in the same slang term having multiple meanings (hood, for example can refer to a criminal ‘hoodlum’ or to the neighbourhood in which they operate) and in meanings varying to some extent between one group of users and another. It also means that (because they are based on speech and not on written sources) the spellings of slang terms may vary and may be used inconsistently.
I have been collecting the slangs of adults and of younger speakers operating in all sorts of contexts, publishing a succession of dictionaries and articles over the years and teaching and broadcasting about these and other ‘nonstandard’ and controversial areas of language. As a linguist I became fascinated by a kind of language that, although exotic, anti-social, irreverent and frequently offensive is technically as complex and as creative as poetry or literature. It’s only by deciphering and understanding this sort of language – or rather these languages – that we can hope to enter the world of teenage cliques, young-adult in-groups and gangs, to come to make sense of their rituals and obsessions, their thoughts and feelings.
For more than a decade, and increasingly over the last five years I have been helping the police forces who are trying to control street crime and the lawyers who are defending those accused (nearly all of them still in their teens or early twenties). My task as a language analyst and an expert witness is to translate and comment on the slang terminology found on confiscated mobile phones, obtained by surveillance and electronic intercepts, or used in the course of live interviews. I’ve found that the officers in question and the legal representatives are dedicated, unprejudiced, painstaking and privately distressed by what they witness day-to-day. They may become familiar with the exotic, shocking language they are exposed to, but they require an expert objectively to interpret and assess the written or recorded evidence they work with, if necessary, too, an expert who can stand in court and testify on their or their clients’ behalf.
In looking at recordings of gang member’s conversations, for example, it’s crucial to know that a ‘burner’ or a ‘mash’ is a handgun; ‘dotty’ means shotgun, ‘Rambo’,‘ramsay’, ‘cutter’, ‘shank’ or ‘nank’ is knife. When looking at jottings in a teenager’s notebook or listening to a hardcore Drill track recorded by a gang associate it’s essential to identify ‘trap’ as a term for selling drugs or the location where it takes place, ‘plug’ as a drug source, ‘dip’ as stab, ‘op’ as enemy, ‘duppy’ as kill, ‘dasheen’ as run away. The same words, catchphrases and slogans are shared across London and into other UK centres: the same gang culture with its obsession with status and respect, its territorial feuding and its violent tendencies seems to apply everywhere.
Nobody expects the average adult, even if an educated, articulate professional to be fluent either in the language of innocent teenagers or the criminal codes used by gang members. Where, then, can a legal professional or law enforcer go in order to get help with slang and street language? Standard published dictionaries do not offer much assistance, even dictionaries specialising in slang do not usually manage to keep up to date and to define and explain the latest terms. Magazine features purporting to explain what millennials and Generation Z are saying are invariably frivolous and inaccurate. One valuable resource is the online Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) a collection of language posted on the internet by real people. Its entries are up to date and usually authentic, but more than half of the expressions on the site originate in the USA and some of the posts are private jokes or local nicknames. There is a small dictionary of the language of rappers and gangsters on my own website (https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/04/19/a-drill-dictionary/), and I can answer general slang enquiries at The King’s College Archive if contacted at email@example.com.
One of the remarkable things about language is that it’s so central to our being that most people are wholly and completely unreflective about it. The racist elements in our cultural history are coming under increased scrutiny, among them the racist roots of some everyday language.
– Jon Birch, channelling Turing and repurposing the Enigma machine
The UK government’s handling of the information transfer required in a national emergency has differed significantly from the strategies employed in other states. While Donald Trump has used the White House ‘pressers’ to expound a bewildering sequence of personal claims, accusations and commentaries, and Angela Merkel has favoured occasional official announcements via mainstream and social media, the government at Westminster has relied on daily televised briefings to keep the public informed of progress in combatting the pandemic and to advise on regulations and desirable behaviour.
After more than two months there has been a chance to reflect on the official recommendations and diktats and to assess their consistence and credibility. It is not clear exactly who is responsible for the drafting of messages or the invention of rallying cries and slogans. The ‘comms’ (communications, including information dissemination and public relations) team probably consists of activists involved in the Brexit Vote Leave campaign, ‘spads’ (unelected special advisors to ministers and the cabinet), spin-doctors and civil service speechwriters from relevant departments, (oversight by the GCS – Government Communication Service – is unconfirmed) *. With an admixture of improvisations by the prime minister and cabinet members, the UK comms have been, in the view of many, a disaster.**
The details, including key statistics, have changed and mutated (at the end of June the two-metre social distancing rule was replaced by Boris Johnson’s advice to switch to ‘one metre plus’), the tactical positions adopted have pivoted and stalled, the advice has often been bewildering or contradictory. Underlying themes may have shown more consistency, but consistency can describe a dependency on metaphors which may be unhelpful or confusing – above all the reframing of attempts to contain and overcome the virus as a ‘war’, with ‘heroes’, ‘non-combatants’ and hapless, tragic victims*** – the virus itself personified as an ‘invisible mugger’ who can be ‘wrestled to the floor’ by ‘have a go’ heroism.
With no other way of influencing events experts and non-specialists have taken to social media to critique and mock the successive claims. Professor Elena Semino declared herself ‘puzzled that the UK Prime Minister keeps referring to his government’s covid-related policies as ‘putting our arms around the public’, adding ‘Embodied simulation would be uncomfortable at the best of times, but now?!?’ Manchester Professor of Government Colin Talbot countered a succession of official claims on Twitter:
We need more testing. We’ll do 100,000 tests a day. You’re failing to do that. We’ll do 200,000 tests a day. We need to track and trace. We’ll have an app to do that. It not working We’ll set up a service to do that You haven’t
We’ll set up a world beating…
It is not only the verbal cues and rhetorical devices that have been deployed to manipulate, to confuse and to evade, but the visual signals, displays and symbology used, consciously or not, to influence and convince.****
– Alex Andreou, on the ‘Stay Alert’ slogan
In a short interview last week I offered my own take on the evolution of covid-related language (as detailed in my two previous posts on this site) and a duty for linguists to become involved in scrutinising, clarifying and where necessary criticising the content of the present infodemic…
As was the case in the national conversation on Brexit the transmission and reception of official messages has been complicated by the role of some MSM (mainstream media) representatives, derided by their critics as ‘client journalists’, ‘courtier journalists’ and ‘stenographers’, in uncritically passing on information, seeming actively to endorse or promote the government line and failing to hold obfuscators or outright liars to account. This will be the subject of an upcoming article on this site.
*** linguists, among them my colleagues at King’s College London, have now begun to analyse the deeper implications of the figurative language employed in official discourse. I will be posting their findings once they become available. Here is one such report, from an Australian perspective…
A perhaps minor example of injudicious choice of words, and conflicting nuances of meaning and connotation, in July 2020. The bilateral travel agreements between states opening borders after lockdown were described by the UK government as air bridges. This term had until now more usually referred to a covered passage by which travellers can pass from an airport building to an aircraft. In more difficult times it had denoted a connection by air between locations divided by sea or by foreign occupation. It is just possible, too, that the phrase might prompt memories of the very expensive, ultimately abandoned ‘garden bridge’ proposed by PM Boris Johnson for the Thames in London, or even the fantasies alluded to by ‘castles in the air’. In the event two different lists of permitted connections were published by the government leading to angry confusion on the part of travellers, airlines and the tourist industry. Led I think by the Foreign Office, from July 3rd official messaging quietly began to substitute the more literal designation international travel corridors.
On July 13 the government launched a new publicity campaign designed to inform businesses and the public on how travel will change after Brexit. Their latest gnomic slogan ‘Check, Change, Go’ and jargon formulations such as ‘field force team’ (for one-to-one telephone consultations) provoked widespread disbelief and mockery on social media, and puzzled consternation from exporters, importers and others. The spoof newspaper the Daily Mash commented (rudely and irreverently)…
Later the same day erstwhile Tory-supporting Daily Mailjournalist Dan Hodges tweeted: ‘Got to be honest, I’ve no idea what Government guidance is on anything any more. Masks. Distancing. Numbers of friends you can meet. When and where you can meet them. Going back to work. None of it. Clear Ministers have basically given up on trying to agree a coherent line.’
Philip Seargeant of the Open University, with whom I have collaborated, has written here on the contradiction between populist narratives and the kind of communications required to manage a crisis such as the pandemic…
…in September I was going to update this page with comments on the latest government initiatives, but Imogen West-Knights beat me to it with this Guardian piece (which mentions the ludicrously named ‘Op Moonshot’ project)…
Pivoting and reassessments, rumours of upcoming changes and irregular official announcements continued through the autumn into the winter. Having introduced a system of three tiered categories of local restrictions the government announced a relaxing over the five days of Christmas festivities, then on 19 December leaks via obscure social media accounts suggested the placing of London into a new Tier 4, prompting irreverent comment on Twitter…
From Jonathan Nunn: “imagine inventing a tier system that divides the entire spectrum of conceivable events into three distinct categories, only to make a new tier to describe the unforeseen way you’ve fucked it”
From Piers Morgan: “We’re now at the stage of this pandemic where it’s safe to assume with 100% certainty that whatever Boris ‘U-turn’ Johnson promises about anything actually means the complete opposite will happen.”
From Becca Magnus: “Ah the good old days of waiting for press conferences while obsessively refreshing Twitter. Takes me back all those years ago to March.”
The new stipulations meant that in London and the South East four different Covid restriction policies had been imposed in 4 weeks…
In January 2021, after more shifts and a last-minute volte-face, a new ‘tier 5’ nationwide lockdown was imposed. The Prime Minister’s briefings announcing this and other reverses and innovations were mocked in posts circulating on social media…
Also in January 2021 theGuardian offered a rare insight into the personalities involved, the prevailing ethos and the strategies pursued by the UK government in their attempts to manage communications…
In February 2021 this video (I’m not sure of the exact provenance) dramatising the government’s pivoting and conflicting advice was circulating on social media…
Later in February 2021 there was much debate, on Twitter and elsewhere, of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, of what exactly a roadmap is and how it might differ from a plan. Roadmaps (the most influential probably being Donald Rumsfeld’s pathway out of the Middle East imbroglios in 2003) are used in corporate strategy, usually as statements of a series of achievements to be aimed for, without waystage dates or details, but that is not the point: ‘roadmap’ is a buzzword evoking a way ahead, a potential route and an intention to travel, all reassuring for those who are lost, adrift or stalled.
The second part of my Lockdown Lexicon, Covidictionary, Glossary of Coronacoinages
In trying to make sense of our new circumstances, under lockdown, in social isolation or distancing, we must come to terms with an array of new language, some of it unfamiliar and difficult to process, some pre-existing but deployed in new ways. Many of us, though, are empowering ourselves by inventing and exchanging our own expressions, some of which have already escaped the confines of the family or the virtual work group.
I listed in my last post some of the scientific and technical terms which have moved into everyday usage. Those can seem intimidating – for good reasons – but most have been readily understood.
This time I’m looking at the language that homeworkers and locked-down friends, families and individuals, in some cases journalists too, in English-speaking areas have coined to fill the gaps in the official narratives and to find ways of expressing concepts that simply didn’t apply a few weeks ago. This includes nicknames, jargon, slang, abbreviations, puns and recent catchphrases and clichés.
I have tried to categorise the terms: again, some have become familiar by now while others may remain mysterious to many. For the moment this is a work in progress – an ongoing project to track the language of the crisis and to operate a linguistic ‘rapid response’ in gathering data.
Although it is a first draft, I thought it important to publish the list now (you can find more on many of these expressions, which won’t appear in standard dictionaries for some time, simply by Googling) and to appeal for anyone reading it to send me new terms, either to this website or to Twitter @tonythorne007. As the list grows I will thank and credit as many contributors as I can.
These are the new expressions, in no particular order, but divided roughly according to theme or topic (there are some terms – isocosm, meaning the contracted reality we are now living in – is one, which could fit under several headings)…
Describing the new realities
Anthropause – the hiatus in human activities occasioned by the pandemic, seen in terms of its effects on nature, wildlife, etc.
Coronaverse (Guardian) – the now prevailing socio-economic order
Quarantimes – a hashtag or label for the prevailing circumstances under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic
#Coronatimes – a hashtag on Instagram and Twitter: the period we are presently living through
BCV, B.C – (the period) before corona(virus)
Common invisible enemy (NATO) – virus as a sinister threat to the collectivity
Coronapocalypse – the effects of coronavirus framed as catastrophe
Radical uncertainty – doubts and uncertainty around decision-making in an unknowable future (title of a work by John Kay and Mervyn King)
Viral anxiety (New Statesman) – fear and uncertainty, sometimes excessive, due to the COVID-19 outbreak and its ramifications
Disinformation pandemic – the spread of fake news and false theories
Infodemic – the accelerated spread of disinformation
The coronopticon (Economist) – the notion of a national or global system of surveillance and control
Biosurveillance – monitoring the occurrence of contagion in a population
Security hygiene – methods intended to counter online scams, frauds and misuse of AI
Digital vigilance – raising awareness of and guarding against cybercrime and fraudulent claims
#coronanoia – paranoia induced by conditions obtaining in the pandemic
Caremongering(Canada and India) – organised acts of kindness and propagation of good news by volunteers
Armchair virologist – an unqualified self-styled expert on viral spread dispensing explanations and/or advice
Coronasplaining – purporting to explain aspects of the coronavirus-induced crisis, particularly to those who understand it better than the explainer
Coronaspiracy theories – conspiracy theories circulating as a result of the spread of COVID-19
Pancession – a pandemic-associated widespread economic recession
Disaster capitalism – profiting, profiteering and exploitation in conditions of local and global crisis
Disaster altruism – acts of benevolence in response to local and global crisis
#lockdowners – individuals coping with life in conditions of isolation
Wobble room – a safe physical space designated for the use of those experiencing psychological distress
Corona warriors (India) – frontline professionals, also known as covid-19 warriors, working to control the pandemic
Covexit – an exit strategy permitting relaxing of confinement and economic recovery following coronavirus-related restrictions
Second wave – a resurgence in the number of cases of infection following the relaxation of initial containment procedures
Corona crunch – the dramatic impact of the pandemic on e.g university income, investment returns
Post-normal science – instances where crucial socioeconomic decisions must be made despite uncertainty as to the relevant scientific facts
Contagion chivalry (New York Times) – an act or acts of selflessness during confinement
Coronacoaster – successive feelings of elation and despair experienced under conditions of confinement
#coronaclickbait – marketing messages or invitations to read information playing on COVID-19 fears
Loxit – the process of exiting from lockdown impositions
Loxino – lockdown exit in name only: an only apparent or partial transition
Circuit-breakers – halting an exit from lockdown by closing re-opened venues or ceasing re-started activities
#unlockdown – the process of relaxing or ending social and physical restrictions, or the period following their ending; equivalent to, or translation of the French déconfinement
Coronaphobia (Daily Mail) – fear experienced by the public at the prospect of having to return to work, send children back to school, use public transport, etc.
Bubble – a social group, a small number of family members and/or friends or teachers and students permitted to interact while wider social constraints continue, also a geographical zone within which travel and trade is permitted
Coronawashing – corporations or individuals taking advantage of the pandemic to promote their altruism, philanthropy and achievements
Cleanliness theatre/er – conspicuously thorough cleaning of hotels, restaurants, etc., intended to reassure customers: if in hospitals and public places it is known as hygiene theatre/er
Vaccine nationalism – competing to discover and produce an antivirus vaccine (benefitting from prestige thus acquired) and potentially then restricting availability to one’s own citizens
Air bridge – a travel corridor between two or more states allowing passage without quarantine. In July 2020, amid confusion, official messaging began to substitute the phrase ‘international travel corridors’
Scarring – long term negative effects resulting from initial harm suffered during social and/or economic upheaval
Security theater (American) – measures that make individuals feel safer without necessarily actually protecting them: public temperature measuring and airport security procedures are examples
Lockstalgia (Times) – the notion that we may look back fondly upon the period of confinement
Clandestine barbers – hairdressers operating illicitly before being allowed to reopen after lockdown
Decompression – the release of inhibitions and surge in misbehaviour expected following the opening of UK pubs and restaurants on 4 July 2020
Safecation – a holiday in a destination thought to be safe while the pandemic continues elsewhere
Wet pubs (Irish) – pubs selling only drinks and not food, so the last to be allowed to open after lockdown
#casedemic – the suggestion that governments are misleadingly using case numbers rather than more meaningful indices in order to implement unnecessary restrictions in what is actually a waning pandemic
Tech-celeration – during 2020 the pandemic accelerated the adoption of many technological behaviours, from video-conferencing and online shopping to remote working and distance learning
Parklet – an extension of a city pavement to provide additional outdoor seating or leisure space when social distancing is enforced and indoor spaces are subject to restrictions
Risk normalisation – a relaxing of vigilance and compliance with regulations by a public now becoming used to pandemic conditions, observed in November 2020 in the UK
Vaccine hesitancy – a reluctance to take, or fear of the consequences of taking the coronavirus vaccine once available (e.g in the UK from December 2020)
Corona-compromised – (of an event) called off, postponed or abandoned due to the ongoing threat of the virus
Twindemic – a posited scenario in which an epidemic, such as COVID, is accompanied by an outbreak of a second infectious disease, such as human or non-human influenza
Pandemicide – gross negligence or deliberate strategy leading to widespread loss of life during the pandemic, a charge levelled at Donald Trump in a September 2020 publication
Coronaversary – the anniversary, in mid-March 2021, of the first tangible reactions to, and realisation of the impact of COVID-19 infections
Vaccine bounce (New Statesman) – the upswing in approval ratings for the UK government following public perceptions of a successful vaccination programme
Re-entry syndrome – the stresses accompanying adjusting to emergence from lockdown
Scariant – a virus mutation or variant which is promoted as being alarming without adequate evidence
Rona, Lady Rona, Miss Rona, roni, rone – the coronavirus personified/familiarised
The rona – the coronavirus
The pandy – the global pandemic, (by Autumn 2020 sometimes in the form panny-D)
The pando (Australian) – the coronavirus pandemic
nCoV – the coronavirus in technical designation or shorthand
Boomer remover – the coronavirus viewed as a phenomenon resulting in the decimation of the babyboomer demographic
Nightingales – first used as a nickname for those singing or performing morale-boosting music from balconies, in gardens, later abandoned when the Nightingale emergency hospitals were opened (or rather, announced but not opened) across the UK
Long-haulers – recovered victims of the virus who suffer long-term after-effects
Locky D – lockdown familiarised
Rat-lickers – those refusing to wear a mask (from the idea that potential victims of the bubonic plague licked rats to ward off infection)
Vaccine-hunters(CNN) – desperate individuals who, rather than wait for invitation to be vaccinated, stalk a pharmacy, hospital or other vaccination site in the hope of obtaining a leftover dose
Innoculati – the fortunate individuals who have already been vaccinated
Halfcinated – having received the first of two vaccine doses
Miley Cyrus (UK rhyming slang) – coronavirus
Covidiot – a person behaving irresponsibly in conditions of containment
Morona – a person behaving stupidly because of or during the coronavirus outbreak
Coronalusional – suffering from disordered thinking as a result of or during the COVID-19 crisis
Sanny (Australian) – hand sanitiser
Iso (Australian) – (self-) isolation
Isobar (Australian) – a home bar stocked, displayed and/or depleted in confinement
Isodesk (Australian) – a workplace improvised or used in confinement
Coronacation – cessation of study or work due to the pandemic, viewed as a holiday
Corona break – a period of confinement envisaged as a short holiday
Drivecation – a holiday, typically in a motorhome, in one’s own driveway
Hamsterkaufing – stockpiling and/or hoarding (adapted from German)
Coronaspeck – extra girth resulting from overeating in confinement
The COVID 19(lbs) (American) – extra body weight accrued during quarantine
‘You know how Gen Z are using ‘cornteen’ as a playful misspelling of ‘quarantine’? This is now reflected in the emoji spelling teen.’
In Spain and Italy the combination 👑🦠 is used, as ‘corona’ is their word for crown
Recently trending terms
The new normal
Behind the curve
The Before Time(s)
*Quote: “When some idiot second guesses a specialist, e.g. when a cartoonist pronounces on epidemiology lessons: to stay in your lane you must know your lane”
**These are terms which have been proposed in online discussions but which may not yet have embedded themselves in the national conversation
*** From forensic linguist Professor Tim Grant; “following the science” There’s no such thing as “the science”. Scientific conclusions are often subtle and slippery. This phrase is being used to avoid responsibility by those taking political decisions. It’s the job of scientists to question, to disagree, to propose alternative explanations, alternative conclusions, to bring to the fore additional evidence that hasn’t been noticed. It’s the job of politicians to weigh this mess of conflictual evidence and make decisions. This decision making is hard and requires taking responsibility. Using “following the science” as cover, is spin doctoring of the worst kind. It’s cowardly, distancing, its-not-my-fault playing politics with this appalling crisis. It’s a failure of political leadership.
It was gratifying in mid-April to see my studies referenced – very informally – in two of the UK’s highest circulation newspapers…
In July 2020 the New Yorker published its own guide to coronaspeak. While the content is amusing, I will not be adding these terms to my glossary until I’m sure they are in circulation among users other than journalists…