#CORONASPEAK 3 – the mixed messages

A role for linguists in coronamessaging?

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…

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/spotlight/spotlight-on-covid-pandemic-language-and-the-role-of-linguists

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.

* More on this, from a partisan viewpoint, here…

https://www.politico.eu/article/boris-johnsons-coronavirus-fudge/

** Doubts were being expressed from the outset…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/16/johnson-daily-briefings-matt-hancock-herd-immunity

*** 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…

Metaphorical militarisation: Covid-19 and the language of war

**** a commentary here on semiology, slogans and signage…

Order out of chaos: Covid-19 threat levels and the manufacture of competence

In June The Conversation published an interesting comparison of the effects of fake news and mixed messages…

https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-fake-news-less-of-a-problem-than-confusing-government-messages-new-study-140383

And it is not only in the UK that members of the public feel confused by official messages and advice, as this article from Vice confirms…

https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/3azdqv/coronavirus-safety-guidelines-changing-confusing-united-states?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

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)…

https://www.thedailymash.co.uk/politics/politics-headlines/check-change-go-six-things-the-governments-new-slogan-could-mean-if-you-havent-got-a-fking-clue-20200713198455?fbclid=IwAR0r9Qx7yIN2rl8nU05Est6CqQ38V1naIfOtsbaQx8DlSjoFk0JvOMUqyeE

Later the same day erstwhile Tory-supporting Daily Mail journalist 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…

https://www.afr.com/politics/how-the-pandemic-exposed-the-shortcomings-of-populist-leaders-20200722-p55ef5

At the end of July the Daily Mail ran another uncharacteristically critical piece on the latest slogans…

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8580437/Boris-Johnson-reveals-new-slogan-hands-face-space-test.html

…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)…

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/sep/16/coronavirus-messaging-britain-operation-moonshot

#CORONASPEAK – the language of Covid-19 goes viral – 2

The second part of my Lockdown Lexicon, Covidictionary, Glossary of Coronacoinages

COVID-19 Updates - Alpha-1 Foundation

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)…

Coronavirus: Supermarkets plan to cut services to stay open during ...

  1. 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

The Rona | Know Your Meme

  1. Nicknames

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 across the UK

Long-haulers  – recovered victims of the virus who suffer long-term after-effects

Rat-lickers – those refusing to wear a mask (from the idea that potential victims of the bubonic plague licked rats to ward off infection)

  1. Slang

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

Quaz (Australian) – to quarantine (oneself)

Doomscrolling/doomsurfing – obsessively accessing upsetting news online

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

Maskulinity – a macho refusal to wear a face covering

Furlough Merlot – a red wine assuaging the anxiety of lockdown and WFH

How to shift your conference online in light of the coronavirus ...

  1. 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

  1. Demographics

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

Coronavirus Pandemic: 7 Social Distancing-Friendly Activities To ...

  1. Security measures

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

Coronavirus UK latest from Downing Street as death toll passes ...

  1. Inappropriate terms

The China virus

Tsunami

Epicenter (NY)

Herd (UK Government)

Cull (Telegraph)

Supersurge

Plague

Coronacoma (New York Times)

War metaphors – see https://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2020/03/17/metaphors-in-the-time-of-coronavirus/

Body count

Take it on the chin (Boris Johnson)

Take one for the team (Stanley Johnson)

Brave fighter

The great leveller

Following the science (UK Government) ***

Green shoots (UK Government advisor)

Blitz spirit

Over interpreting

Lockdown Stasi (Daily Mail)

Perfect storm

Wet market

#Scamdemic, #shamdemic, #Plannedemic, #Coronascam – hashtags used by US conspiracy theorists attempting to discredit orthodox narratives of the pandemic

Invisible mugger (Boris Johnson)

Good British common sense (Boris Johnson)

PPE equipment

Hiding at home

#SecondCummings

World-beating track-and-trace operation (Boris Johnson)

Muzzle

Mutant algorithm (Boris Johnson)

Moonshot (UK Government)

The last chance saloon

Panicdemic (Peter Hitchens)

  1. Emoji

https://emojipedia.org/coronavirus/

‘You know how Gen Z are using ‘cornteen’ as a playful misspelling of ‘quarantine’? This is now reflected in the emoji spelling 🌽 Ear Of Corn Emojiteen.’

In Spain and Italy the combination 👑🦠 is used, as ‘corona’ is their word for crown

  1. Recently trending terms

Unprecedented

Cataclysm(ic)

Hunker down

Ramp up

Mobilisation

Cabin fever

Stir-crazy

Dark days

Strange days/times

Uncertain times

The new normal

Exit strategy

Bounceback/bounce back

Behind the curve

Calamitous

Infinite present

Snap back

Game changer

Gaslighting

Easing

Hubris

Obfuscation

Evolving

Mandatory

The Before Time(s)

U-turns

Fatigue

Compliance

AI could help with the next pandemic—but not with this one | MIT ...

*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.    

 

Global Outbreak Word Cloud Concept Stock Photo, Picture And ...

It was gratifying in mid-April to see my studies referenced – very informally – in two of the UK’s highest circulation newspapers

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8232123/Covid-19-pandemic-triggers-new-wave-coronaspeak-slang.html

And to talk – very informally again – on the subject on Canadian radio

https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-april-22-2020-1.5540906/covidiots-quarantinis-linguist-explains-how-covid-19-has-infected-our-language-1.5540914

More recently Michael Skapinker discussed covid-related language innovation in the Financial Times

https://www.ft.com/content/b7a6b3f0-830b-11ea-b872-8db45d5f6714?fbclid=IwAR3GXQS1esBzN1EZxf2LVgjXAjoZzG4kbqyopdKQ5yj0tWEArzQsWMT89GA

Peter Bakker and his colleagues at the University of Aarhus, Denmark have kindly shared their (not entirely serious) compilation of COVID-related language novelties…

COVIDictionary. Your go-to dictionary in times of Coronavirus and COVID-19

And Alice Moldovan, with input from Howie Manns and me, highlights Anglo-Australian rhyming slang…

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-14/miley-cyrus-coronavirus-covid19-cockney-rhyming-slang/12324930

In July 2020 Dutch news site NU.nl featured coronacoinages, with contributions by Ton den Boon and me…

https://www.nu.nl/281763/video/quarantinderen-en-toogviroloog-hoe-corona-de-taal-verrijkte.html

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…

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/lexicon-for-a-pandemic

Although it’s distasteful to someone of my puritan sensibilities, I should also include this link to the Economist‘s guide to pandemic dating jargon…

https://www.economist.com/1843/2020/07/15/pandating-coronavirus-and-the-language-of-love

In  August 2020 one of the first, if not the first, academic studies of COVID-related neologisms appeared, with a very useful multilingual bibliography:

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/english-today/article/englishbased-coroneologisms/99D6DA8CF3E953D1C3BC4B9EE574EE9C

In October students at UCL London posted a very useful update on COVID-related nicknames and slang:

https://thetab.com/uk/london/2020/10/15/the-quaran-dictionary-all-the-best-and-worst-slang-from-the-pandemic-37521

#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

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

(IN)EFFECTIVE INVECTIVE – the language of protest

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

Image result for Led by Donkeys white cliffs today

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…

Image result for led by donkeys

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…

Anti Brexit Signs

Invective, banter and wit are mainstays of the British national conversation, irreverence and unseriousness is a default, obligatory style of private and public discourse…

Anti Brexit Signs

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…

Image result for lots of funny placards demonstrators

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

Graffiti Billboard. Postcard. If this lady were a car, she'd run you down.  Photo by Jill Posener, 1979.  Postcard published in England.

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…

https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2019/03/dont-be-fooled-by-the-twee-placards-at-the-peoples-vote-march/

https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/03/25/the-reactionaries-are-on-the-march/

But slightly less predictable is disapproval from the Greens…

http://bright-green.org/2017/08/22/ive-had-enough-of-your-witty-placards/

graffiti saying 'words do not mean anything today'

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…

Votes for Women

 

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…

Image result for Led by donkeys our star

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…

The Language of Protest: political demonstration in the age of Covid-19

TALKIN’ ‘BOUT MY GENERATION

Image result for baby boomers meme

 

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.**

Image result for OK boomer

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.’

Image result for baby boomers meme

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…

 

Living life to the full: According to the report, Britain's over-50s are more active and outgoing than ever

 

‘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…

Image result for tony thorne millennials

 

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.’

Image result for tony thorne millennials

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.

Generation Yawp

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?

Virals

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.

Adelians

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.

Ferals

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.

The Atlantians

And this one depends on how the climate change conference currently under way in Paris turns out.

iHosts

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.

Netflix/Chillers

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.

The HMA

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.

 

Image result for tony thorne millennials

 

*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…

https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/can-baby-boomers-and-generation-z-be-friends-ok-boomer

** The passing of the OKBoomer memes and hashtags and the surrounding furore was (I think prematurely) announced, also in November 2019…

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/11/obituary-ok-boomer/602656/

*** members of Generation Jones have been sharing with me, on Twitter, their experiences of being the junior partners of the first boomers…

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_Jones

…And, one month on, Dr Anna Dixon comments from King’s College London on the intergenerational blame game…

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/news/blaming-baby-boomers-for-intergenerational-inequality-gets-us-nowhere

In March 2020 Newsweek joined the boomer fightback…

https://www.newsweek.com/2020/03/13/ok-millennial-boomers-are-greatest-generation-history-1490819.html

DE-CODING SUPER SATURDAY’S BREXIT MOMENT

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.’

Image result for greased piglet

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…

https://www.rte.ie/radio/radioplayer/html5/#/radio1/21639391

A slightly longer version of the script…

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.

Image result for girly swot molesworth

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…

*https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/08/23/a-glossary-of-skunked-terms-brexitspeak-and-the-toxic-terminology-of-populism/

**https://language-and-innovation.com/2018/05/15/gammon-up-against-the-wall/

 

Image result for greased piglet

…NO WORD OF A LIE…?

Some new thoughts about the pervasive, destabilising, discomfiting Language of Lying in public life

Image result for lie word cloud

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.

Bethany Williams on Twitter: "Let's GET THIS GOING!!!! Call Sue at  Embroidability and order your “Make lying wrong again” baseball ($15) or  bucket hat ($20) in either navy blue or black -

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:

Acting Dishonestly Impairs Our Ability To Read Other People’s Emotions

https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/10/trump-lies-kavanaugh-khashoggi.html

and in December Richard Sambrook reflected on the way that traditional norms of political and media behaviour had been abandoned in the 2019 election campaign:

https://theconversation.com/uk-election-2019-dirty-tricks-wrong-footing-a-media-that-now-faces-a-fight-to-remain-relevant-128326?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201481214069&utm_content=The%20Weekend%20Conversation%20-%201481214069+CID_ae975b7b58146a2a8760418def4730c6&utm_source=campaign_monitor_uk&utm_term=some%20serious%20reflection%20is%20needed

Lastly – for now at least – back in November we had news of the world’s biggest liar:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/nov/22/festival-of-fibs-workington-man-is-crowned-worlds-biggest-liar

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A happy footnote: the OU documentary in which I took part won the Medea Award, announced in October:

Click to access MEDEA-Awards-2020_press-release_Winners_20201028.pdf

BEWARE BIGWIGS – and BIGWIGS BEWARE

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Print, broadcast and social media have a fairly small repertoire of expressions to deploy when fawning over, or seeking to discredit, the bigwigs who lord it over us and, supposedly, lead us. The expression I have just used, hoping for a striking epithet, is first attested in the mid-18th century (already with its tinge of sarcasm, its lack of due deference) when ostentatious wigs were worn by the most important and self-important personages in the land: ‘A new point of discussion for the lawyers, for our big wigs, for their Lordships.’ From the same era and invariably used of Dr Johnson is ‘panjandrum’, from Grand Panjandrum, an invented phrase in a nonsense verse published in 1755 by Samuel Foote*. By the 19th century it had come to refer mockingly to an ‘imposing figure’, especially if puffed-up. Such terms have a comic quality which may not be quite appropriate in the current climate of political rancour, so we revert to the (over) familiar mainstays of journalistic discourse.

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With recollections of the notorious fraudster press baron Robert Maxwell featuring in post-Epstein press reports the word magnate has been employed by more than a few journalists. It first appeared in Middle English and derives from late Latin magnas, magnat – great man, and it and its translations formerly defined a class of post-feudal nobility in European lands.

While we are at it, grandee (important, influential male in public life, often applied to elderly, retired, invariably hugely wealthy former politicians of a particular stripe) appeared in the late 16th century, from Spanish and Portuguese grande, senior nobles, from Latin grandis, great. The English ending was by association with the originally French-inspired ending -ee, seen in such formulations as ‘devotee’ and ‘debauchee.’

 

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In the same lexical set of possibly overweening, overstated titles as ‘magnate’ and ‘grandee’ is mogul (as in ‘hedge-fund mogul pedophile’ – a recent press caption) which was originally cognate with ‘mongol’ and referred to the Mughal (the Iranian version) dynasties who ruled India between 1526 and 1857 and were thought by Europeans to have vast stores of treasure at their disposal. The word’s suggestion of limitless power coupled with financial profligacy gave us those journalistic cliches of the 1950s, ‘movie mogul’ and ‘Hollywood moguls.’

‘Mogul’, ‘grandee’, ‘magnate’ share a category with tycoon – Japanese taikun, great lord or prince, from Chinese tai great and kiun lord, a designation of the ruling Japanese Shogun used by respectful foreigners, adopted into English in the 1860s, first as an admiring description of a political figure, then, from the 1920s as journalese shorthand for a prominent business leader and/or entrepreneur, especially if perceived as powerful, dynamic and/or aggressive.

On Twitter J-V Vernay asks ‘How about nabob from Nawab?’ In the colonial era in India the word, which later came to mean a returning colonist who had enormously enriched themselves, originally denoted a deputy governor of a province under the Mogul Empire. It is Anglo-Indian, probably adopted via Portuguese nababo from Hindi and Urdu nabab, from the Arabic plural nuwwab meaning viceroys. A wonderful word in its jaunty sound and in its connotations, perhaps bestowed most memorably in this case:

https://www.amazon.com/Nabob-Sob-Very-Johnnie-1951-57/dp/B01AXLWSBE …

Another rather rare but interestingly loaded term for alpha-males in public life is plutocrat, denoting a wielder of power derived from enormous wealth. ‘Plutocracy’ appeared in English in 1631, from the Greek ploutos wealth and -kratia, meaning rule and was widely used to describe the economic and social dominance exercised by late 19th century and early 20th century industrialists in the USA. Potentate is another resonant label from the politico-journalistic lexicon: it began to be used in the 1400s and is formed from Latin potentatus, dominion, from potent, having and/or exercising power.

I should probably mention in passing the honorific I secretly crave for myself: it’s eminence-grise, describing a ‘power-behind-the-throne’, a hidden manipulator of affairs, an arranger working in the shadows, originally referring to His Eminence François Leclerc du Tremblay, who wore a beige robe when that colour was in French described as grey and was the righthand-man of Cardinal Richelieu.

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In my previous post I listed some of the disapproving epithets for those in public life who wield power and influence and aspire to or affect greatness but, to put it much too kindly, fall far short. Another term associated with scrutiny of these reprobates which has been trending recently is impostor. ‘Impostor syndrome’ (then known as ‘impostor phenomenon’) was first defined in 1978. The word itself was adopted from French in the 16th century, derived via French imposteur from Latin imponere to impose upon, deceive, swindle. An ‘imposture’ denoted a fraudulent display or adoption of a false persona while the imposter or impostor was the perpetrator. Some, of course, who exhibit symptoms of the syndrome – shiftiness, false bonhomie, exaggerated preening – really are impostors.

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*Foote invented the word, which has echoes of Latin or Asiatic tongues, as part of a sequence to test the memory of a fellow-actor: ‘And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top’

CODESWITCHING, STYLESHIFTING – AND STEPPING OFF

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I first encountered codeswitching when as a very young boy I watched the movies of Satyajit Ray, the Indian auteur whose dialogues featured Indian families interspersing their conversations in Bengali with words and phrases in English. In those days the technical term for this, the concept too, was rarely if ever treated by linguists, let alone understood by the wider, overwhelmingly monoglot UK and US publics.

Codeswitching, which is actually commonly practised, usually in less formal settings, in many different societies and multilingual communities, did subsequently become the object of enquiry by language experts, and theories were generated to account for the phenomenon and to analyse its various manifestations (you can find a summary of these on Wikipedia).

More recently in the United States a particular manifestation, that of African American citizens moderating their language to cope with different speech environments, has helped ‘codeswitching’ to begin the crossover from technical terminology into everyday conversation. More recently still, in the last two weeks, the word has featured in a political and cultural cause celebre

She didn’t grow up in the Bronx. She moved out when she was 5. Saying she grew up around the language is misleading; it’s the very reason why it was so cringe-inducing to hear her say it. There was no flava, no swag, no essence. She didn’t pull it off.

‘From Westchester and Boston U who has never before been seen on any video (and she got lots of those!) speaking in this weird, constrained accent that was a person’s idea of what they should sound like. Leftists don’t get a pass on their racism.’

It’s “cultural appropriation.” It satisfies EVERY SINGLE definitional predicate thereof: She is not Black, not poor, and left the Bronx at age 5. She was pandering for political purposes. Not a debatable point.’

The accusations relate to American political Wunderkind and bugbear of the Right, Latina Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was accused of pandering to a new constituency and assuming a fake identity in a speech to a predominantly black audience – accusations she rushed to refute, telling her critics to ‘step off’ – African American vernacular for ‘get lost’:

https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-defends-critics-say-used-fake-accent-step-right-off-223800949.html

Some members of the US public did voice their support

‘I think it’s just that most Republican house/Senate members have never talked to anyone except rich white men so they never have to switch’

 ‘Switching’ or ‘shifting’ is related to what linguists call ‘accommodation’ – altering your speech to match or to empathise with your interlocutors*. It can be simply intended to make communication faster, clearer, or it may be adopted consciously or unconsciously to establish a bond or to affirm solidarity. I certainly find myself doing it – but maybe I’m not typical as I’m a linguist. I do it and have heard it done not only with BAME interlocutors but when more neutral British accents are brought closer to those of Scousers, Geordies, Scots and, still in English, with Jamaicans, Americans and Australians. I think for obvious reasons we are more likely to engage the ’empathy’ mechanism when the conversation is in a more heightened, charged, socially sensitive setting – this of course would apply if we are more conscious of diversity, identity, inequity issues. I also have to talk a lot with younger people who are speaking street slang and MLE in their natural environment and when I do my intonation certainly shifts and I use more informal vocabulary and even slang – I modify the style of my speech in order to accommodate. They probably upscale their style for me too.

Whatever the reason for style-shifting I would say that it should generally be considered a positive rather than negative habit. In the stratified class-conscious British context it would only be questionable if it was condescending, as with a posh person adopting a ‘working class’ accent when talking to tradespeople – which I have to admit I do all the time and which Sunday Times columnist India Knight expounded on back in 2001 (thanks to Stewart McNicol for the reference):

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yJQorfAWa3Vpj379L8nyG-23yjyeWR2AGRaeoBKopQg/edit

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Style-shifting is a positive part of being multilingual or rather ‘heteroglossic‘ – the  philosopher and literary theorist Bakhtin’s term for being able to speak in multiple voices for creative effect and in recognition of multiple contexts. The problem is that most monolingual Brits and Americans can’t do it and don’t do it. Of course the adoption of other voices can be overdone or done inappropriately. Some people have accused style-shifters of ‘appropriation’ but it depends on the speaker’s intention. If it’s to claim the other’s identity to exploit it – Australian rapper Iggy Azalea stood accused of faking a ‘blaccent’ last year – it’s bad. If it’s in order to form a bond it can be laudable. The TV comedy Phone Shop brilliantly satirised white men speaking multiethnic street slang, as did Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G more than a decade earlier. DJ and hiphop enthusiast Tim Westwood has been getting away with it for years.

Following the latest brouhaha I talked to London journalist and specialist in BAME-related issues Faima Bakar about code-switching and her report for Metro is here:

https://metro.co.uk/2019/04/07/whats-the-issue-with-style-switching-when-talking-to-black-people-9128962/?ito=article.desktop.share.top.twitter

Yesterday US linguist John McWhorter joined the debate in an influential piece:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/04/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-code-switches-black-english/586723/

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And Chandra Arthur reminded us of her TED talk on codeswitching as a strategy for underrepresented minorities in the tech industries:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo3hRq2RnNI

In search of a personal take on the issues dealt with here, I spoke to a young academic researching at my own institution. Farhaz J told me…

‘I do find the idea of code-switching fascinating… I’ve been doing it all my life. From pronouncing English words with an Indian twang when conversing with my grandparents, to incorporating slang terms when messaging one of my primary school classmates who is currently in jail for gang crime. I’d imagine my most natural speaking style is that which I use when talking to my immediate family, with whom I’ve grown up and am most comfortable. And of course the style of language I would use in a job interview or an email to my lecturers at King’s College London might not be my most natural. It’s certainly interesting to consider motivations for code-switching.

If your natural style of speaking brings you privilege, why would you need to change it, and what does it suggest when you do? Perhaps in my case, my motivation for code-switching could either be to make myself more understandable, e.g. when adjusting my accent and grading my language when speaking to elders in my extended family, or to enhance my image – my ‘face’ – in the case of speaking to somebody who was involved in gang culture. I suppose it can be gratifying to appear trendy in how you speak – in my experience, the coolest kids in school used the latest slang, often acquired from peers or artists in UK rap and street culture. As language itself in that genre of music is regarded as much more essential than in others where there is much more emphasis on melody or vocal ability, there is probably a greater need for rappers to impress listeners with creative lexis in their lyrics.’

On a much lighter note, and lest we forget, Henry Hitchings reminds me to reference  former England managers Steve McClaren‘s spectacular act of linguistic accommodation back in 2008…

In August 2020 The BBC released this podcast with personal accounts of codeswitching in the workplace, and the role of MLE…

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000ls8x

*After this post and John McWhorter’s article appeared there were useful conversations on Twitter about which technical terms in linguistics most accurately described what AOC had been doing. US based sociolinguist Kelly E Wright commented, ‘I would consider what AOC is doing as style shifting, in a Sociolinguistic sense. To me, code-switching is intrasentential.’ She added, ‘From my theoretical background, I would characterize accommodation as happening on fine grained, lower levels. Slight vowel fronting or raising. Point being, not at the level of metacognitive awareness…We notice a recognizable, and also “foreign” (to us or to the speaker in our percept) speech pattern. That means there is much more than textbook accommodation going on.’ I noted that I had favoured ‘styleshifting’ in my commentaries but that ‘codeswitching’ had now become part of the ‘public conversation’/’sociocultural narrative’ and that ‘accommodation’, whether conscious or not, might be an appropriate term in cases of class-influenced accent moderation in a UK setting.