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…
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.
Many specialists and members of the public, too, were aghast at the government’s rhetoric around the notion of ‘Freedom Day’, a more or less complete, and overnight relaxation of protective restrictions proposed for July 19. The consistency of the chosen keywords characteristically began to unravel, as Professor Alice Roberts noted on July 11, ‘What does this actually mean? Is vigilant this year’s “alert”? How does vigilance help protect against an airborne virus when a government is not recommending and supporting effective mitigations…’ and Guardian journalist Sirin Kale commented two days later (quoted with her permission), ‘I see the government is trying to row back their Freedom Day messaging at the 11th hour just 2 weeks after senior ministers briefed they wouldn’t be wearing masks indoors any more. You’d think they’d have learned the dangers of conflicting messages after the Xmas fiasco but nope’
In September 2021, following revelations by government aide Dominic Cummings of his employers’ vacillation and incompetence, a second ousted advisor, Lee Cain broke silence to excoriate the teams working on communications during the pandemic:
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
Coronasomnia (Washington Post) – sleeplessness as a result of anxiety related to the coronavirus pandemic
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
Jab-fest – a frantic launch of a large-scale vaccination programme as in India in April 2021
Surge-jabbing – an intensification of a vaccination programme to deal with a highly contagious new variant, as in the UK in May 20121
Variant of concern – a new and more dangerous virus strain
Exit wave – a resurgence in COVID infections predicted to follow an ending of restrictions, of the kind planned for July 19 2021 in the UK
Immunity debt – the phenomenon whereby cases of other infectious diseases, such as norovirus, increase more than usual once protective measures against COVID are removed.
Breakthrough infections – cases in which individuals become infected despite having been vaccinated
Fauxvid – symptoms of malaise mistaken for COVID
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
Coroanacuts – haircuts carried out at home, especially when less than successful
De-roning – attempting to remove traces of coronavirus by cleaning/disinfecting items that have recently entered the home
Zumped –‘dumped’ by a partner via videolink or otherwise online
Ronavation – renovation or refurbishment during lockdown, an Instragram hashtag
Coronacranky – short-tempered as a result of enduring lockdown
Flu bro (American) – a male coronavirus denier, from their assertion ‘It’s just the flu, bro.’
Quarandating (Canadian) – using cellular dating apps to meet people and go on virtual dates through platforms such as FaceTime
Zoombie – someone incapacitated by too much screen time, or a malicious disruptor of a videoconference
Quarantanning – sun bathing or using tanning equipment during confinement
Quaran-stream – binge-watch TV series, movies while enduring lockdown
Smizing – smiling with the eyes, as when wearing a facemask (a term coined by US celebrity Tyra Banks in 2009)
Spendemic – a dramatic increase in online shopping by those confined during the coronavirus crisis
Coronasshole – first applied in March 2020 to US panic buyers, then in June to US citizens refusing to wear masks. In July the synonym #maskhole began to trend on social media
Spreadneck (American) – an ignorant and/or stubborn anti-vaxxer
Maskulinity – a macho refusal to wear a face covering
Furlough Merlot – a red wine assuaging the anxiety of lockdown and WFH
Lockdown locks – long and /or unruly hair following months without cutting or styling
Blursday – an undifferentiated day or date due to uncertainty after long confinement and isolation
Airgasm – the intense pleasurable feeling experienced when able to remove a mask and breathe freely again
Vaxinista – someone who flaunts the fact that they have been vaccinated as if a fashion statement
Vaccine sommelier – a person delaying vaccination until they can choose their preferred brand of vaccine
Pinged – advised by the NHS phone app to self-isolate
Pandemic pants(Australian) – track-suit bottoms worn while locked down or WFH
Nerd immunity – the notion, based on studies reported in February 2021, that those wearing glasses are less susceptible to COVID infection
Homeworking and teleconferencing
WFH, wfh – working from home
Productivity ninja – a stress-free, purposeful and high-achieving worker (title of work by Graham Allcott)
Covidpreneurs (Irish Times) – individuals or businesses succeeding in thriving and innovating in a pandemic environment
Zoombombing – hijacking and/or interrupting videoconferencing on the Zoom platform
Slackers – remote workers using the Slack groupworking application(s)
Virtual backgrounding** – adjusting one’s visible décor for videoconferencing
Videofurbishing** – enhancing one’s décor prior to videoconferencing
Zoom room – part of one’s home kept clean and inviting for use as videocalling background
Quarantini – a martini mixed and consumed in conditions of confinement
Locktail hour – a time allotted to consumption of cocktails while isolating
Upperwear – clothing selected for display above the waist only
Telecommutercore (Guardian) – casual clothing selected for use when videoconferencing and/or home-based working
Infits – outfits worn in conditions of confinement
Quaransheen** – a shiny nose and/or forehead visible while engaged in videoconferencing
Zoomlift** – the cosmetic surgery supposedly required as soon as obligatory online interaction ends
Coronaviva – an oral examination or thesis defence taken online during lockdown
Quaranteams – groups forming and performing – music or competing in quizzes for example – together virtually during lockdown
Quaranqueens – a woman excelling during lockdown, particularly one excessively cleaning and tidying
Quarantrolls – individuals sending malicious online messages in conditions of and/or referring to quarantine
Quarantunes – music produced and/or performed under lockdown
Quaranzine – a magazine produced under lockdown
Coronalit – literature produced during/inspired by the pandemic
Corona-fi – fiction or science-fiction produced during/inspired by the pandemic
Zoom mullet – a hairstyle developed in lockdown which is ‘camera-ready’ (presentable to a webcam) at front and sides and dishevelled at the rear
#isobaking – home-baking in confinement and/or exchanging recipes: a hashtag on TikTok and Instagram
Zoomitzvah (Jewish Chronicle) – a bar mitzvah celebrated via video app in confinement
Homeference – a virtual conference that participants can attend remotely
Zoomed out – exhausted and/or disoriented after spending too much time in videoconferences
Zoom fatigue – a draining of energy resulting from the unusual stresses involved in interactions in virtual meetings
The wipe-away – the high-visibility handwaving that indicates the person is leaving a virtual meeting
Toxic productivity – the unfair expectation that professionals, creatives and others should be able to stay productive, even achieve more during adverse situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic
Uberise – to emulate Uber in moving to a system whereby employees decide which hours of the day they will plug in under the work from home model during the pandemic
The elephant in the Zoom – an unmentioned presence or unacknowledged issue in an online meeting, or an elephant themed background or video
Desk disco – defined by translator and copywriter Ian Winick as ‘taking a few minutes out to boogie on down at your desk’
Hate-wear (New York Times) – clothing items, usually unfashionable, possibly also uncomfortable, worn in confinement for their utility rather than their style
Sadwear (Esquire) – ‘clothes that make us feel better when we’re sad, specifically born out of the existential ennui of lockdown’
Apocalypse beard (Guardian) – uncontrolled facial hair that can double as a face-warmer
Hybrid working – a combination of working remotely and on-site
WFA – working from anywhere. ‘It also used to be called telecommuting – that’s an example of how language changes over time, says Tracey Fritcher, principal strategist of employee experience at ServiceNow.’ Their useful glossary, published by the Guardian, is here****
Coronials – The generation born after December 2020 as a result of the enforced quarantining of their parents due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Gen(eration) C – in 2018 designated young ‘connected consumers’, now may refer to young people coming of age since the onset of the coronavirus crisis
Quaranteens – the generation who will become teenagers in 2033 -4
Elbump – an elbow contact in place of handshaking or other physical greeting
Coronadodge – swerving to avoid passers-by to comply with distance restrictions
Couple-spreading – couples permitted under regulations to walk together taking up excessive space in public places
Covid waltz – manoeuvring to avoid close contact with passers-by while distance restrictions are in place
Loopholing (South African) – exploiting imprecisions or allowances in distancing restrictions in order to travel
Overreaching – enforcing crisis-related regulations too zealously
Yob-dobbing – reporting someone’s antisocial behaviour to authorities
Ronadobbing (Australian) – informing on those contravening crisis-related restrictions
Coronasnitching ** – informing on those contravening crisis-related restrictions
Covidobbing** – informing on those contravening crisis-related restrictions
Coronagrass** – a person who informs on those contravening crisis-related restrictions
Curtain-twitching – peering at and/or spying on neighbours
Corona-shaming (New York Times) – publicly criticising those, particularly celebrities, who have infringed public health regulations
Masklessness – wearing no face-covering, in US often as a gesture of defiance and/or disbelief in standard pandemic narratives and official advice
Whack-a-mole – a piecemeal response to a major problem, such as ad hoc local lockdowns in the context of a second wave of infection
Cohorting – imposed grouping of health care workers and others, for example teachers and students working together or prisoners and guards, who are potentially susceptible to viral infection
Covid marshals – officials sent to public locations to enforce new UK social distancing rules from September 2020
Lockdown light – used in Germany and elsewhere in October 2020 to describe a set of restrictions on movement and behaviour that falls short of a full lockdown
Tier 4 – an upgrading of the UK’s three-tier pandemic management system of graduated local lockdowns to a national lockdown, envisaged from November 2020
Mockdown – a term trending in November 2020 and again in January 2021 indicating a lockdown that is insufficiently enforced and/or widely disregarded
‘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.
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…
In trying to make sense of their new circumstances, under lockdown, in social isolation or distancing, ‘ordinary’ people are at the mercy of, and must come to terms with new language, some of it unfamiliar and difficult to process, some pre-existing but deployed in new ways.
I am using the shorthand #coronaspeak for all the novel expressions that the crisis has generated (US linguist Ben Zimmer coined the alternative ‘coronacoinages’, but my examples are not all new coinages, some are adaptations or existing terms). Phrases such as ‘social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’ have become familiar, even if their meanings are still to some extent contested. But in a society in which, we are told, around 5 million UK citizens cannot even access the internet, how are we to negotiate this rise in ‘lexical load’, this ‘lexical overload’?
I’d like to consider first the ‘medicalisation’ of everyday language: the way in which technical terms from the jargon of sciences and healthcare cross over into popular usage. Some of these words and phrases seem transparent, even if their histories and implications are actually complicated. ‘Social distance’, for instance, was previously employed in sociology and psychology for, in the words of Dr Justin Thomas, ‘how close we are happy to get to members of an outgroup, e.g. would you be happy to marry a [insert outgroup here]’ and many, including the World Health Organisation – WHO – with hindsight have proposed that ‘social distancing’ (also criticised for being an oxymoron) be replaced by the more literal ‘physical distancing’ in present circumstances. A phrase like ‘test-vacuum’ can seem ambivalent or opaque, but in the current context refers specifically to the failure of the UK authorities to emulate Germany in carrying out mass testing of the population. Even the most basic concepts like testing, tracing are actually very difficult to unpack, especially as the official narrative on these pivots constantly – at times, it seems, deliberately.
There are, unsurprisingly, regional variations in the preferred terminology: quarantine in official and popular usage and shielding in place describing a policy protocol are heard relatively rarely in the UK; cocooning likewise, though it is a central plank in health policy in Ireland. There are also novel and forbidding coinages which at first defy interpretation, even if they describe something otherwise indescribable: I was recently warned against ‘epistemic trespassing’ which means, in the words of one Twitter contact, ‘when some idiot second guesses a specialist, e.g. when a cartoonist pronounces on epidemiology’
Some other examples of words which have transitioned into the national conversation, moving from technical or specialist registers into general usage are listed here with comments…
Pathogen – an organism that causes disease, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi
Antigen – in immunology a toxin or other foreign substance which induces an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies
Viral load – the total amount of viral particles that an individual has inside them and may shed
Respiratory – relating to the organs of the body responsible for breathing. When pronouncing, the word used often to have the stress on the first syllable, but more recently the stress is usually placed on the second (‘pir’)
Ventilation – the use of artificial methods to assist breathing
Proning – requiring intensive care patients to lie on their front to reduce their need for oxygen
Incubation period – the time between being exposed to a virus and becoming aware that one is infected
Intubation – the inserting of an endotracheal tube (ET or ETT) through the mouth and into the airway of a patient to assist breathing: extubation describes its removal
Pandemic – an epidemic – a quickly spreading disease – which has spread very widely and infected a high number of individuals
Vectors (of transmission) – agents such as infected individuals that transmit infectious pathogens into a population
Contact tracing – identifying, then assessing and monitoring those who have come into contact with an infected individual.
Flatten the curve (popularised to ‘squash the sombrero’) – to slow the spread of a virus, for instance by social containment measures, so that fewer people need to seek treatment at any given time. The term is epidemiologist jargon, but has been criticised as being a euphemism
PPE – personal protective equipment used to shield the wearer from work-related hazards
Palliate – means to make (a disease or its symptoms) less severe without removing the cause. hence ‘palliative’ care where no cure is possible. Ironically, ‘palliate’ can also mean to disguise the seriousness of (an offence)
Psychoneuroimmunity – the desirable state achieved by way of ‘preventive strategies of healthy lifestyle, regular exercise, balanced nutrition, quality sleep and a strong connection with people’
Furlough(ed) – appearing in English in the 17th century, the word is related to Dutch verlof, leave, and refers to the granting of a paid leave of absence. The term was employed in British military jargon during WW1 but until now was generally considered an Americanism
Mitigation – the reduction of the severity of symptoms
Immunocompromised – having a weakened immune system, hence less able to fight infections and other diseases
Comorbidity – one or more illnesses or diseases suffered by a patient at the same time as a primary condition
Harvesting effect – a temporary increase in the mortality rate when secondary factors such as underlying health conditions add to the number of victims of an epidemic
Patient zero – the first case or the first documented patient in an epidemic
Red zone – a geographical area or location classified as having the highest levels of infected individuals and which should be placed under quarantine
Super-spreader – an infected individual who transmits the infection to a higher than average number of others
Asymptomatic – displaying no symptoms of an infection. Infected individuals who are asymptomatic are sometimes known as ‘silent carriers’. The term began trending again in the light of the second wave in October 2020, sometimes in the variant form asymptomic
Hot spot – a cluster of, or a location showing a concentration of cases of infection
Petri dish – literally a shallow dish in which biologists culture cells in a laboratory. Now commonly referring to an enclosed environment in which infections can spread unchecked
Cluster effect – the result of concentrations of people at social gatherings, often in public places, enabling an accelerated spread of infection
Shielding – by or for the most vulnerable individuals, this means taking the most stringent measures in order to minimise interaction
Shelter in place – a US security protocol whereby citizens are warned to confine themselves, originally in the event of chemical or radioactive contamination
Crisis triage – emergency short-term assessment and assignment of treatment of individuals suffering from sudden overwhelming medical or psychological symptoms
Peak surge – a term properly used in relation to power surges in electric circuits but used now to describe the maximum level reached in an accelerating increase in cases of infection
Fomite – an inanimate object contaminated with or exposed to infectious agents (such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses or fungi), which can transfer disease to a new host.
Zoonotic diseases – infections which spread from animals or insects to humans, also known as zoonoses
Donning, doffing and disposing – putting on, removing and disposing of PPE (personal protective equipment) in official medical parlance
R rate – R0 (‘r-nought’) is a mathematical gauge of the reproduction rate of a contagious disease
Behavioural fatigue – a supposed reluctance to adhere to social conduct norms, should imposed strictures, such as containment and confinement, continue for too long
Seroprevalence – the number of persons in a population who test positive for a specific disease based on blood tests, a measure of cumulative infection
Anosmia – loss of the sense of smell, and in some cases also taste
Pod – a self-contained unit of confinement such as an isolation pod in a medical facility, a social contact or family pod providing space for personal interaction during quarantine. Bubble is used in the same sense in some settings
Immunity passport – a proposed certificate issued by national authorities confirming that the bearer is free from infection
Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) – actions, apart from vaccinations and medicine, that people and communities can take to help slow the spread of contagious infections, also known as community mitigation strategies
Aerosol transmission – the spread of infection via tiny, lingering airborne liquid particles rather than by exhaled droplets or fomites (contaminated objects)
Long COVID – the experience of those who have recovered from initial coronavirus infection but continue to suffer from a range of significant symptoms
Transmission advantage – the ability of a mutant strain of a virus to spread more quickly than the prevalent version of the infection
Zero Covid – a strict containment strategy or policy typically involving total shutdowns
Surge testing – additional community testing offered and encouraged in areas where mutations of the coronavirus have led to a sudden increase in cases of infection, even by asymptomatic individuals
I am still appealing for contributions to my lexicon via this site, on Twitter or by email, and will thank and credit contributors where possible. My next posts will look at slang and colloquialisms and newly invented expressions related to Covid-19.
For the terms considered here I am very grateful to, among others, Professor Carmine Pariante, Alan Pulverness, Nigel McLoughlin, Gail Jennings and Julian Walker
There is a comprehensive glossary of coronavirus-related technical terminology, published in Canada and updated weekly:
I belatedly became aware of the important response by linguists to the pandemic in China, and to the novel concept of emergency linguistics. More details of the role of language in that context can be found here:
One year later and abiding problems are covid-denial, vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal. Professor Elena Semino continues her research into the framing and metaphorical features of pandemic-related communications:
Demonstration against UK visit by Donald Trump, Cambridge, 2017
The juxtaposition of image and text in public protest has a long history. My previous post focused on demonstrators’ placards and on the ingenious visual displays staged by Led by Donkeys on hoardings and projections.
Here I offer the first sequence in a purely visual chronology, showing some famous and some lesser-known examples of subversion (whether overtly political or overtly absurdist) for public consumption…
Anti-Nazi photomontage by ‘John Heartfield’ (Helmut Herzfeld) 1936
Notting Hill, Westbourne Park and Grand Union Canal, London, 1970s, photos by Roger Perry
Conceptual artworks by US artist Jenny Holzer
Anonymous graffiti, vandalism and alterations
Anti-gentrification messages, East London
Protest as land art
A further (very well-chosen by Lyn McKelvie in 1996) selection of examples of photomontage, subvertising and ad-jamming follows here:
And Yet It Moves by John Heartfield
Rationalization Is On The March by John Heartfield
Creative print ads target plastic pollution
Powerful Environmental Ads
Creative print ads target plastic pollution…
Here, from Flashbak, are Richard Davis’ striking photos of Manchester in the 1980s and 90s, showing slogans and graffiti in their settings, alongside the people of Hulme:
“During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.” -Kurt Vonnegut
This morning, 31 January 2020, official date of the UK’s departure from the EU, the agitprop group Led by Donkeys projected on to the white cliffs of Dover a message from the UK to its European neighbours…
The group had been active since the Brexit referendum, erecting billboards across the UK replaying the messages of pro-Brexit and populist politicians. Led by Donkeys scores precisely because it doesn’t employ wit or wordplay, or Banksy’s admittedly striking visual epigrams, but simply replicates and reminds us of the messages it thinks we should beware of…
In the UK the recent language of protest, on placards in particular or in graffiti, has tended to employ irony, sarcasm, flippancy, facetiousness, to get its messages across by way of puns and cultural allusions…
Invective, banter and wit are mainstays of the British national conversation, irreverence and unseriousness is a default, obligatory style of private and public discourse…
The signing and symbology featuring in public demonstrations, and the debates taking place in public spaces is social media IRL; the slogans and quips on display are Twitter come to the streets…
The tactics used by Led by Donkeys rather recalls the media manipulations advocated and practised by activists in the 1960s. By way of detournement the Situationists pioneered the hijacking of the multimodal spectacle projected – or inflicted – by capitalism, appropriating and reworking words and images and turning it against its creators…
…and in later anti-capitalist subversions employing the strategies known as culture-jamming, ad-jamming, ad-busting or subvertising…
The street protestors’ placards, for all their wit, wisdom and wrath, have been dismissed by some as self-indulgent, harmless venting and ultimately ineffective. The rightists’ dismissals are perhaps to be expected…
All these protest styles and strategies are part of a rich and complex tradition which I have only touched upon in this short post. I will shortly add some, hopefully more detailed and more profound observations on the subject on this site, together with a visual history which I hope to incorporate in an upcoming broadcast…
Today’s projection by Led by Donkeys differs from their static hoardings in using an original filmed recording of war veterans, and in adding a poignant final message in what looks like a heartfelt personal coda…
It does however appropriate a pro-Brexit trope, as well as an iconic setting, substituting real warriors for Brexiteer nostalgia and for what the left derides as ‘airfix patriotism’ -the false memories and imaginary heroism of those who cannot remember or have never studied the real British past.
In June 2020 the Open University made available its short film on the Language of Protest, accompanied by an essay by Dr Philip Seargeant on the same subject…
Here, with his kind permission, is Philip’s article, updating the topic for an audience still undergoing pandemic restrictions…
People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we g-get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)…
I passed the author of those words in the street the other day. Babyboomer Pete Townshend (of the Who rock group, for younger readers) was looking characteristically mournful. I, only a few years younger than Pete, am feeling characteristically feisty as I mount a one-man fightback against the latest slurs directed at us both. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the current dismissive catchphrase ‘OK Boomer’, imported from the USA along with a barrage of boomer-baiting in social media and in the press*. I fully understand that this is in part a fully understandable backlash by younger people against the relentless criticism and condescension directed at them by their elders for years – vitriolic in the USA, slightly more measured in the UK, where the focus has been more narrowly concentrated on trying to market to ‘youth’, whoever they may be.**
We boomers have to own the appalling voting record of many of our number, and we have to overcome our passive-aggressive bumptiousness. US humorist P J O’Rourke pioneered the uneasy self-deprecation that for a long time characterised our embarrassment about characterisation: ‘Once the Baby Boom had gone through all of its rudimentary phases of ideological development, from revolutionary pimples to Reaganite hip replacement, the true politics of our generation would be revealed. In America the reasonably well-off and moderately comfortable are the angry masses. It has to do with borrowing Mom’s car.’
Our age demographic has nonetheless been unfairly maligned for far too long. It’s time now to forget the clichés and facile recriminations, move beyond intergenerational strife based on slogans and soundbites and to revisit some of the beliefs that we held to, and the ideas that we explored. I’ll be looking at how this might be achieved in my next post.
I have never really been comfortable with the labels adopted for categorising generations, age-groups and consumer cohorts. But I’ve been guilty of promoting them myself. I only heard today of the sub-division of the babyboom demographic, known in the US as ‘Generation Jones‘***, but back in 2014 I described another, then newly discovered tribe, one that emerged from the consumerist jungle before slipping back into obscurity…
‘Trend forecasters The Future Laboratory have promoted the term superboomers to define a new wave of consumers, key players in lifestyle markets. Now forming 24% of the UK population, rising to 33% by 2030, controlling 75% of the nation’s wealth, (with another £3 billion coming soon from pension cash-ins) the over-55 demographic is rebooting, redefining former notions of aging and retirement. Their enthusiasm for digital media, starting up new businesses (as encore entrepreneurs in the jargon), fitness and self-improvement – and later-life dating, too – sets them apart from the pre-babyboomer generations. Enriched by runaway house prices they are juggling their property portfolios in ways that agents struggle to keep up with. In fact, the message for the entire commercial sector is catch on and catch up, since, according to a 2014 survey by High50.com, only 11% of superboomers think brands are interested in them, while 95% are certain that advertising is ignoring them altogether.’
I had been one of the first to record the arrival, belatedly in the UK, of the millennial label. In 2007 I tried to define this new phenomenon for the readers of Business Life magazine…
‘Millennials are the latest generation of young professionals. We’ve witnessed the rise of babyboomers and yuppies, then of the former slackers known as Generation X. This newest generational label (alternatively Generation Y or the Echo Boomers) refers to youngsters born between 1981 and 1999 and their coming of age has spawned a slew of articles in both specialist journals and popular media. Commentators are detailing how they differ from predecessors in their collective attitudes and describing how to manage them in the workplace. What is provable is that millennials are the most ethnically diverse, as well as the most digitally aware and empowered group yet to emerge. On their other characteristics, though, opinions differ sharply. In the UK some employers have castigated them as work-shy, semi-literate, needy and narcissistic while US behavioural ‘experts’ laud the millennials’ ability to multitask, their skill in balancing work and leisure as well as their supposed respect for elders and leaders, trust in institutions and allegiance to teams.’
By December 2015 the MTV channel was declaring that Millennial, the term, and Millennials themselves were out of date. It had some novel proposals for the naming of the coming generation…
‘For those millennials looking forward to the day the baby boomers finally give up the ghost and hand over the keys to the world, MTV has some bad news. Millennials, with their social media narcissism and difficulty getting on to the career ladder, are yesterday’s news. The future, it seems, belongs to the next generation, one MTV has hereby decreed shall be dubbed The Founders, a name that, despite being a real word, is somehow very creepy, like the title of a supposed self-actualization men’s group your father would join in an attempt to get over your mother leaving, who before long would mysteriously have power of attorney over him. We can do better than that. Here are 10 better titles for the demographic cohort of tomorrow.
According to experts – and by experts, I mean marketing executives assuming expertise based on a desperate need to feel sure about anything in a rapidly evolving culture – post-millennials are driven to rebuild and redefine a society built around broken or corrupt systems of governance, hence (sort of) the name Founders. Unfortunately, these kids have also been plugged into social media since the moment they were born, which means for many of them effecting real and lasting change means posting their complaints in capital letters and retweeting with wild abandon.
MTV Presents: The Currently Desirable Demographic
This nickname doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it does get right to the point – namely, that giving each generation a handle is increasingly a cynical attempt to corral young people with disposable income into a singular, easily defined mass for marketing purposes, and in the case of MTV taking it upon themselves to name this crowd also a sad swing at retaining some fading cultural currency. Maybe we’ll shorten it to The MTVCDD?
Let’s admit that within 10 years the chief connotation of the word “viral” will have nothing to do with biology and will primarily stand for what is steadily becoming the pinnacle of human achievement and state of being that is every post-millennial’s greatest desire.
Adele sold almost 4m albums in the last few weeks, so it might be nice to name the next generation in her honor to mark what might be the last occasion that so many people agreed on anything.
This name depends on whether literally any one of the current Republican presidential candidates manage to pull out a win next November and become what will surely be the last leader of the free world.
And this one depends on how the climate change conference currently under way in Paris turns out.
This one depends on whether Apple ever works out the kinks in those crummy wristwatches and moves on to what I suspect must be the next stage in their ultimate plan for us all.
The Duck and Cover Kids
Unless someone with political power ever gets it together and does something about the ease with which a deluded maniac can buy a gun and transition into a domestic terrorist.
For those not in the know, a “Netflix and chill” session means getting together to enjoy some streaming content prior to fornication. Many post-millennials may well be part of the first generation spawned through such a practice.
In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an old sailor is forced to bear the burden of an albatross he killed at sea by wearing it around his neck. As the Baby Boomers continue to die off, leaving irreversible environmental damage, systematic racism, endless war in the Middle East, and various financial disasters in their wake, post-millennials might want to adopt the slogan that every one of their grandparents deserves to have carved into their tombstone – Hold My Albatross – as a rallying cry. This one is unlikely, but you Baby Boomers … was embracing the Eagles and the Grateful Dead not enough? You couldn’t just ruin music, you had to take the whole world down, too?’
Like superboomers and many others, whether frivolous and facetious, or coined with deadly serious intent (I’ll be listing some in my next post), these labels instantly and ignominiously faded from the radar.
*The OKBoomer media storm is summarised in an article from November 2019. What interests me especially is how, when zoomers, millennials, centennials and generation z rounded upon the hapless boomers, the cohort which is still dominant – generation x -once again escaped censure…
My project to create a glossary of Brexitspeak and the toxic terminology of Trumpism and populism* has thankfully attracted media attention and contributions from many specialists, writers and members of the wider public. I am very grateful and absolutely delighted to reproduce here the lexicon compiled by students on the MA in Translation and Professional Language Skills Programme 2019-20 at the University of Bath and their teacher Teresa Lander…
Their glossary not only brings together some of the latest expressions thrown up by rancorous, divisive debate, but adds a multilingual element, including as it does Brexit-related slang from neighbouring languages…
Glossary of slang terms/insults regarding Brexit
“The resulting conversational punishment received when disagreeing with a supporter of the [B]rexit movement”
“A person who is outraged and frustrated over the result of the European Union membership referendum in the United Kingdom which the vote took place on the 23rd of June of 2016 and relies on protests against the UK government and for the EU to prevent Brexit”.
“British prime minister Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017 saying the UK needed a “strong and stable” government because of Brexit. It is an expression she would live to regret after she lost her majority and was forced to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her minority government”
‘Ministropad’ (no translation) – “a cascade of ministerial resignations,” (Rosenburg, 2018). “The term literally translates as “ministerfall.” Styled after the Russian word for “waterfall” (vodopad), it swaps out “water” (voda) for “minister” (ministr)”.
‘Un brexit salvaje’/’un brexit a las bravas’/’un brexit por las malas’ (a wild Brexit/a Brexit by force/a crooked Brexit) – referring to a no-deal scenario, a contrast to the less positive spin than English terms such as a ‘clean break’ Brexit
‘Una vacuna contra el euroescepticismo’ (a vaccine against euroscepticism) – referring to the difficulty and mishandling of the Brexit process, that has caused support for outright leaving the EU to sink according to opinion polls in other member states
‘Le Royaume-Désuni’ (divided kingdom) – a play on words of the French term ‘le Royaume-Uni’ (United Kingdom) – used in the context of Brexit to refer to the way in which it has severely divided the UK population and threatened the overall unity of the country, particularly in relation to Ireland and Scotland.
‘brexit’ (common noun – lower case ‘b’) – a tongue-in-cheek term proposed by French journalist Bernard Pivot, resulting from the Brexit strife, that would be used to signify any row, debate, negotiation or meeting that proves insoluble and shambolic. (e.g. l’assemblée des copropriétaires s’est achevée en brexit.)
‘Quel brexit!’ (alternative to ‘quel bordel’ – ‘what a shambles/mess!’) – a very tongue-in-cheek term proposed by French natives in response to Bernard Pivot’s ‘brexit’. In this instance, ‘brexit’ would convey the same meaning as French term ‘bordel’, meaning ‘shambles’ or ‘mess’, and would be used in any shambolic situation.
‘Le bateau ivre’ (term originating from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud relating to the drifting and sinking of a boat lost at sea) – used metaphorically in the context of Brexit to refer to its lack of direction and absence of satisfactory leadership.
“Les partisans du Brexit ont réduit le Royaume-Uni à l’état de bateau ivre, sans cap ni capitaine.”
Today, we are told, is ‘Super Saturday’: not the last Saturday before Christmas, a bumper time for retailers, but an extraordinary weekend sitting of the UK parliament, only the third since the outbreak of World War 2 and this time to debate what one commentator has risked dubbing the ‘Brexit Moment’. Connoisseurs of new and exotic language can add to Super Saturday and Brexit Moment a pair of novel expressions trending in the same context: ‘greased piglet’ was the epithet bestowed by former PM David Cameron on his successor, explaining that ‘the thing about the greased piglet is that he manages to slip through other people’s hands where mere mortals fail.’ The piglet himself appealed this morning for our ‘better angels’ to heal divisions (and do his bidding), a slightly puzzling evocation of Abraham Lincoln’s ringing words: ‘We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’
To accompany this morning’s unfolding developments RTE Radio asked me to record a commentary on these and other language innovations for their Irish listeners, and this is what I said…
In struggling to keep abreast of the momentous events, the dramatic political developments generated recently by populism on both sides of the Atlantic, we have all of us had to contend, too, with a rising tide of new language – exotic and unfamiliar new terms, old terms repurposed and weaponised, slang, jargon, catchphrases and slogans coming at us on a scale and at a speed not seen before in my lifetime.
I have been collecting the language of Trumpism, of Brexit and of the new alignments in politics, society and the media. I’m doing this because, as a linguist and a dictionary-maker it’s my responsibility not only to record but to make sense of new language, not only looking at its simple definitions but at its deeper, sometimes hidden implications and the hidden agendas and real intentions of the people who are using it.
I’m compiling what I call a glossary of the toxic terminology of populism*, a list of over 400 words and expressions which is growing by the day. Just a few moments ago I added the phrase ‘mediaeval methods’, a euphemism for torture used yesterday by the UK government to describe what they intend to apply to get MPs to back their latest Brexit deal.
George Orwell long ago exposed the twisting of truth and the hypocrisies of political language, but he was living in a much much simpler world. The language I am working with – novel notions like the Backstop, new idioms like dog-whistle and dogpile, jargon like identitarian, pathocracy or factuality – is not straightforward and not neutral or innocent. These are expressions designed to describe a changing social landscape, but also often designed to baffle, to bamboozle and confuse, to manipulate us. This of course is not new – the language of advertising and of politics has been doing this for a long time, but the multichannels, platforms and outlets and the multimedia techniques employed are far more pervasive and sophisticated than ever before.
Americans refer to words as ‘skunked’ if their meanings have become distorted and they become toxified, so that elite, metropolitan and cosmopolitan, snowflake and melt become slurs; libertarian, which once meant progressive, now refers to the far right, politically correct and social justice warrior and virtue-signalling are insults. When Boris Johnson calls his predecessor a girly swot, accuses a critic of humbug, the cosy, dated words are uttered with barely concealed venom.
In the UK we still prize a sense of humour and some terms do sound lighthearted: cakeism is wanting to have your cake and eat it – this time used by the EU against the UK for once – when Jeremy Corbyn is described as a magic grandpa or the absolute boy, the comments are double-edged to say the least. The so-called centrist dad (I’m probably one myself) is not just an ageing moderate but a feeble, cowardly enabler of the far right; magic money tree and unicorn are definitely not meant to be funny, and gammon** describes a ruddy-faced apopleptic male, invariably a Brexit supporter, but the word is an expression of genuine hate by the left.
There are some ironic phrases I find funny despite their serious intent: one is ‘Airfix Patriotism’ – Airfix sold plastic kits in the 50s and 60s for making model warplanes, and dads and kids would buy them and stick them together with glue, evoking the heroic actions of pilots in the second world war – the patriotic rantings of the right today have been seen as based not on any understanding of our history but on a caricatured, kitsch vision of a heroic past. In the same way Ladybird libertarians base their false memories of an idyllic England on the beautiful watercolour illustrations in the Ladybird childrens books and on comics and tea-towels rather than social realities.
The terms that irritate me, though, are the clichés, catchphrases and slogans endlessly repeated; take back control, get it done, the will of the people, Brexit means Brexit…
There are scientific, technical-sounding words being bandied about which actually describe frightening changes in power relations: ethnonationalism, nativism, pathocracy (the rule of sociopaths and psychopaths), sadopopulism (strongman rulers who end up victimising even their own supporters) and even homonationalism – the co-opting of LGBT issues to advance a racist ideology.
Donald Trump is famous for the crudity of his language, but the metaphors used in political discourse in the UK have also moved further and further into the realm of conflict, warfare, occupation and collaboration: first directed at our supposed enemies in the EU, traitor, betrayal, saboteur are now aimed at anyone at home – quitlings or quislings – rabble – who fails to toe the party line with enough enthusiasm. Academics in the US and UK are analysing the rhetoric and the metaphors but tend to discuss these things with each other I want to talk to the public, to make people more aware.
Of course new circumstances do demand new language and some expressions just fill what linguists call a ‘lexical gap’ in the language: both-sidesism, whataboutery, de-platforming, cancel culture all were coined to describe concepts that didn’t exist or weren’t so important in the past, the whole vocabulary of Brexit, including the word itself is unprecedented. It sometimes feels as if our whole reality is unprecedented, and we, whether we lean to the right or to the left, just wish it would stop, but it’s not over yet: inevitably there will be much more verbiage, rhetoric, toxic terminology, to come…
Some new thoughts about the pervasive, destabilising, discomfiting Language of Lying in public life
In 2015 Conservative politician Grant Shapps was forced to admit that he had ‘over-firmly denied’ having a second job under a pseudonym, selling a ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme while sitting as an MP.
In 2008 Hillary Clinton admitted that she had ‘misspoken’ when she claimed to have come under sniper fire during a 1996 visit to Bosnia.
A slang phrase, borrowed from US street and hiphop parlance into so-called MLE, ‘multicultural London English’, and often used by teenagers in London today, is ‘no cap!’ an exclamation which is the modern equivalent of the adult ‘no word of a lie!’ when swearing that you can be trusted, are being sincere, are telling the truth.
Orwell famously exposed the doublespeak of totalitarianism and I wrote some years ago about politicians’ evasive and duplicitous ‘weasel-words’ (a version of the article is on this site). In the late 90s I presented a series for the BBC World Service in which we looked at the politics of ‘spin’ and the work of the spin-doctors employed first by Bill Clinton and later by Tony Blair to massage their messages and to take ownership of the media narratives of the moment. The half-truths and untruths perpetrated today are more frequent, more widespread, some are more flagrant, and all are helped in their trajectories by multiple new platforms and outlets and far more sophisticated mainstream and social media capabilities.
I have collected examples of the toxic terminology and ‘skunked’ terms employed by demagogues and charlatans and echoed by compliant journalists and commentators (my glossary is on this site). In the media maelstrom we are presently living through, untruths, half-truths and fake news, too, have featured prominently and repeatedly in the national conversations of the US and the UK. With this in mind the Open University has produced a two-part mini-documentary on the Language of Lying in which I was privileged to take part. We talk about the concepts of truth and falsehood and about their incarnations in the current context of populism, Trumpism and Brexit.
Part One of the documentary is here:
I’m very grateful to Dr Philip Seargeant of the OU for initiating this project and asking me to take part, grateful too to Hamlett Films for producing the programme.
Here is the second part:
And here are links to two more recent commentaries on lying: