2022 – THE STORY SO FAR

The themes of the year so far can perhaps be summarised by my hasty posts in passing, on Twitter and elsewhere, in which I considered the keywords trending in the UK’s political and media discourse during the last days of January and the first days of February…

Scurrilous

Rather late to the party – sorry, ‘gathering’ – today’s word is ‘scurrilous.’ Defined by Dr Samuel Johnson as ‘using such language as only the licence of a buffoon could warrant.’ In her resignation letter yesterday Downing Street Policy Chief Munira Mirza accused Boris Johnson of ‘scurrilous’ behaviour when he falsely linked Keir Starmer to the failure to bring paedophile Jimmy Savile to justice. The word first appeared in English in the early 1500s in the form ‘scurrile’, coarsely joking, from the Latin ‘scurrilis’, buffoonlike, itself from the noun ‘scurra’ denoting a fashionable loafer, idler, buffoon, said to be a loan word from Etruscan.

Glee

On 2/2/22, as #BorisJohnson and #jimmysavile jointly trended for the second day, the word ‘glee’ was ascribed to both. It denotes barely repressed mirth/hardly concealed febrile joy and I think describes the desperate glint of triumph in the eyes of the abuser who once again goes unpunished. ‘Glee’ was Old English ‘gliu’, ‘gliw’, ‘gleow’ – entertainment, jest, play, also music and mockery – probably from Proto-Germanic ‘*gleujam’ but its only close relation was the rare Old Norse word ‘gly’ joy. All these are related to Old Germanic ‘gl-‘ words with senses of shining, smooth, radiant, joyful and Celtic cognates such as welsh ‘gloywa’, shining. Dictionary definitions of ‘glee’ note another nuance or connotation (more technically ‘semantic component’) which is often present: ‘exultation deriving from one’s own good fortune or another’s misfortune.’

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Airfix nostalgia

As Airfix promoted their 2022 calendar (cover picture above), I was asked again to explain the notion of ‘Airfix nostalgia’, an expression which mocks the delusion whereby nativists, patriots and bigots, most of them under the age of 50, like to imagine that they were personally involved in WWII or the British Imperial project. The reference is to the Airfix plastic modelling kits of fighter planes and warships bought by parents and children in the 50s and assembled at home.

Fib

In among rancorous ongoing denunciations of lying by those in public office (see elsewhere on this site and in this list by Peter Oborne*) came a passing invocation of – or attempt at disculpation by reference to – the lesser offence of ‘fibbing’. A fib is a ‘trifling lie’ or ‘white lie’, so I’m not sure it’s quite the right term in the current context, but it’s from the 1580s, the verb from 100 years later. Its exact origin and first use are uncertain, but it probably began as a jocular version of ‘fable’, perhaps reduplicated as ‘fibble-fable’ and then abbreviated to its modern form.

Rhubarb

When accused of being complicit in the authorising of an airlift of dogs from Afghanistan, PM Boris Johnson described the allegation as ‘total rhubarb’. The colloquial borrowing of the word to mean incomprehensible chatter or nonsense may have its origin in theatrical circles (as noted by Mark Peters in 2015**): it is again a telling choice of words: dated, euphemistic (like ‘mince’ as a euphemism for sh**t which seems similarly to be part of Tory groupspeak), obscure in the sense of being class/age-sensitive, hence condescending.

Endemicity

A new and tendentious, contentious example of #coronaspeak was added to my glossaries on this site in January 2022. The seemingly neutral, technical term was in fact employed in attempts to convince the public that the pandemic was subsiding and the coronavirus morphing into a less lethal presence in the community. Epidemiologist Deepti Gurdasani noted perceptively that ‘Endemicity’ is the rebranding of ‘herd immunity’ by the same people who were repeatedly wrong about how close we’ve been to achieving herd immunity. They’re now moving to claiming we’ve reached endemicity, regardless of what the term actually means – just like they did before.’

Lawfare/lethal aid

As the promoter of Brexit Arron Banks sued investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and the US sent the first aid packages to Ukraine I added two key terms to the #weaponisedwords glossary on this site: #Lawfare, referring to vexatious litigation by a nation or individual, and ‘lethal aid’, a euphemism or (as lexicographer Jeremy Butterfield pointed out to me) a dysphemism for military assistance.

Languishing

Are you Languishing? - The Performance Room

In mid-January articles examined the effects of isolation and burnout after nearly two years of restrictions and confinement using a new characterisation of the condition***: ‘languish,’ from the 14th century, meaning to be feeble, listless, moribund or grieving, pining, is from Old French ‘languir,’ from Vulgar Latin ‘languire’ to be weak, faint, idle, from proto-IndoEuropean *'(s)leg’ the ancestor of ‘slack’, ‘lag’ and ‘lax’. ‘Anguish’ is unrelated.

The prospective and retrospective pathways to and from depravity are... |  Download Scientific Diagram

Depravity

Despite the blizzard of slurs and denigrations circulating on social media and in the mainstream press since 2019, some words have been conspicuous by their absence. One such began trending in the UK national conversation, and then only briefly, in mid-January. ‘Depravity’ in the sense of immorality, degeneracy was first recorded in English in 1641, not directly formed from the earlier verb ‘deprave’ (Old French ‘depraver’, pervert, accuse, from Latin ‘depravare’ distort, disfigure) but a version of the noun ‘pravity’ from Latin ‘pravitas’, crookedness, deformity, from ‘pravus’, crooked.

Guile

On January 7 my word of the day was ‘guile’ (first ascribed to the leader of HM Opposition, and then energetically disputed on social media: ‘…it took guile to convince so many on Labour’s left that he was the natural successor to Jeremy Corbyn’ –The Times) The noun, meaning cunning, artful ability to deceive and/or duplicity, was first recorded in the 12th century. It is from Old French ‘guile’ from Frankish ‘wigila’, ruse, from Proto-Germanic ‘*wihl’, ancestor of English wile(s), from Proto-IndoEuropean ‘*weik’, consecrated, holy.

*https://boris-johnson-lies.com/johnson-in-parliament

**https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/11/mark-peters-bullshit-word-of-the-day-rhubarb-is-a-tart-theatrical-term-for-bs.html

***https://theconversation.com/languishing-what-to-do-if-youre-feeling-restless-apathetic-or-empty-174994?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=bylinetwitterbutton

One day in July

On Burnout, Decompression, Re-entry Syndrome – and Calling It a Day

Still mulling over the words of Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation, who described plans by the UK Government for a general relaxation of COVID-protection policies in ten days time as ‘moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity’, I was invited to join a discussion on London’s Voice of Islam radio station about the notion of ‘Pandemic Fatigue’ and its implications.

The full discussion is here, with my contribution beginning at 44 minutes…

We can see then, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ can sometimes be a useful, neutral, technical designation, and this is how the WHO itself presented it in 2020…

We can become aware, too, that ‘pandemic fatigue’ is a very conflicted term: although used by the WHO and by ‘ordinary’ people to describe their very real exhaustion, it has also been used, like ‘compliance fatigue’ by authorities to blame the public for disobeying…

https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/01/07

Despite being locked down myself, in exile for the moment, this was another busy day, with long, mainly heated and indignant discussions taking place on Twitter of what ‘indigenous’ might mean in the context of the UK, triggered by the assertion by Tory MP Andrew Bridgen that the ‘indigenous’ population of the UK will not tolerate immigration. The offending word is an ambiguous and context-dependent term currently. Recent examples have referred to Canada’s First Nations in the harrowing context of deaths in schools where indigenous children were confined. I don’t think it has been used by any reputable specialists in or about the UK, and its use at a time when an England football team of very mixed origins is being celebrated seems crass and provocative. (We don’t know who the ‘original’ inhabitants of the British Isles were, because there was no written record until 55 BCE, but they certainly immigrated, or invaded and colonised as did all the subsequent settler groups.)

On BBC Radio Bristol I once again answered listeners’ queries on the the etymology of popular expressions. This time, perhaps aptly in present circumstances, the phrase was ‘call it a day.’ First recorded in 1838 by US writer Joseph C Nolan in his Charcoal Sketches – A Study in the Humor of the Old Northeast, it was in the form ‘call it half a day’ and seems to have reflected the mixed feelings of weariness and resistance on the part of workers from the Philadelphia slums, deciding to knock off early or to award themselves a half-day holiday. By 1919, as the USA wearily emerged from war, the usage had mutated into ‘call it a day’: in 1938 ‘call it a night’ was first recorded.

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I called it a day myself, at nine o’clock on a warm evening, pleased to have been awarded nine out of ten in a facetious Twitter competition for a photo of my hand, and recalling the louche philosopher Gurdjieff’s realisation that he had progressed from drinking from glasses to drinking from “what are called ‘tumblers'”…

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#CORONASPEAK – the language of Covid-19 goes viral

Latest Advice on Coronavirus (COVID-19) | Bournemouth and Poole ...

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 OrganisationWHO –  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’

Self-isolate or quarantine? Coronavirus terminology explained ...

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

Booster dose/shot – a third vaccination for those who have already received two 

Plan B – a set of precautionary measures outlined by the UK government in September 2021, potentially to replace those in place, in the event of a surge in infections at the onset of winter. Medical experts unsuccessfully urged the government to move to this level of response in October.

Critical incident – a set of circumstances (as in January 2022) requiring special emergency responses, defined by the NHS as ‘any localised incident where the level of disruption results in the organisation temporarily or permanently losing its ability to deliver critical services, patients may have been harmed or the environment is not safe, requiring special measures and support from other agencies’

Endemicity – a ‘dynamic equilibrium’ in which infection rates stabilise in a society, allowing management of the pathogen

 

China fall in coronavirus cases undermined by questionable data ...

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:

https://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/publications/covid19-eng.html

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:

Language lessons of COVID-19 and linguistic disaster preparedness

Colleagues at King’s College London are looking beyond the Anglosphere at the ways in which language is used both to react to and to construct the realities of the global crisis:

Worldmaking in the Time of Covid-19

In August 2020 the German army published this comprehensive multilingual glossary of technical and administrative COVID-related terminology:

https://www.bundeswehr.de/de/organisation/personal/organisation-/bundessprachenamt/corona-glossar-in-sieben-sprachen-veroeffentlicht-1104036

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:

https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/vaccination-discourse/2021/09/12/from-roast-dinners-to-seatbelts-metaphors-to-address-covid-19-vaccine-hesitancy-by-elena-semino/

Another intriguing aspect of corona-discourse is the use of phraseology in reporting and in messaging, as described in this retrospective from September 2021: