#coronaspeak: language in a crisis
‘Death’, said Toni Morrison, ‘may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.' Whilst the devastating and ongoing impact of Covid-19 is almost impossible to fully account for, its profound effect on the language we use to measure our experiences is already being felt.
If someone had said ‘social distancing’ to you last summer, you’d probably think they just needed a bit of me-time. Back then, ‘PPE’ referred to the favoured university degree of the Tory ruling elite and ‘vectors’ were something graphic designers occasionally mentioned, but no-one else knew or cared anything about.
Covid-19 has changed the way we think and speak about the world. In a matter of weeks, politicians, journalists, and the public have adopted a radically unfamiliar lexicon cribbed from science, created new words and metaphors, and repurposed existing language to make sense of an extraordinary and ongoing global event.
The result is a unique viral vernacular: #coronaspeak. The term and hashtag were coined by linguist and lexicographer Tony Thorne, compiler of four successive editions of Bloomsbury’s Dictionary of Contemporary Slang and language consultant at King’s College, London. Thorne is assembling a glossary
of ‘the language of Covid-19’, tracking the proliferation of new words and usages that populate discourse around the virus.
Thorne uses the phrase 'medicalisation of everyday language' to describe how people everywhere have very rapidly assimilated a range of new terms, as technical jargon originating in scientific discourse and healthcare has crossed over into commonplace and everyday speech. At the same time, the public has also created its own ways of making sense of the crisis.
‘In the case of the current pandemic the new language is coming from these two very different directions: the technical experts on the one hand and the private citizens operating at home under lockdown on the other. Each is having to coin new terms to describe their new realities’, Thorne told Horrid Covid.
‘Increasingly “ordinary” people are taking ownership of communication and creating their own ways of communicating rather than being subject to the traditional wordsmiths: technical specialists, professional writers, educators and politicians, for example.’
Word-creation, neologising, and coining novel expressions are enduring features of all languages. Yet, at times of crisis, the rate of ‘lexical innovation’ seems to accelerate. Take the example of Brexit, where a slew of economic and legal phrases and abbreviations—‘backstop’, ‘hard border’ ‘customs union’, ‘WTO rules’, ‘managed no-deal’, and so on—spilled out of the protracted negotiations and into common use.
Thorne explains: ‘inevitably, a socio-political-economic crisis will accelerate the processes of creating or repurposing/recycling vocabulary. It has always been the case that wars, for instance, will generate new language: the technicalities of weaponry and strategy and social regulation, and the vocabulary needed to express the experience of war from non-combatants too. New language arises in order to fill “lexical gaps” in the language: technologies, processes, products, lifestyle changes that hitherto had no names.
‘These processes are part of normal language evolution, but are accelerated in times of crisis.’
Perhaps the most common way of making sense of the unfamiliar is through metaphor. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson noted in their seminal 1980 book Metaphors We Live By:
Metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. [...] We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.
In other words, metaphor is at the heart of how we understand and experience the world; it is not merely a matter for authors to deploy and literary critics to decode but something we all use every day. World leaders and commentators have been quick to adopt a raft of metaphors to make sense of the coronavirus.
Many have rushed to frame the spread of the virus as an outbreak of armed conflict. South Korea ‘declared war’
on Covid-19. In a television address to the nation on March 16, French president Emmanuel Macron announced ‘nous sommes en guerre’
: ‘we are at war’, repeating ‘en guerre’ six times to drive the message home. Queen Elizabeth, although more sparingly, also invoked a military lexicon in her speech of April 5
, thanking ‘everyone on the NHS front line’ for their service. Boris Johnson was more direct, telling an emergency cabinet meeting
, ‘we are engaged in a war against the disease which we have to win’.
There has also been widespread personification of Covid-19. Virologist Peter Kolchinsky called the virus an 'evil genius’
; others have remarked on its ‘cunning’
or labelled it an ‘evolutionary trickster’.
I spoke to Brigitte Nerlich, emeritus professor of science, language, and society at the Institute for Science and Society at the University of Nottingham, who has been tracking the use of metaphors to discuss the coronavirus.
‘A lot of the time we use metaphors unconsciously, like when we say “Oh dear that was a real battle!”, when trying to resolve, say, technical difficulties with a computer. Such “conceptual metaphors”, like “Dealing with computers is a battle” are everywhere, mostly completely invisible, like “fighting off a cold”, Nerlich explained.
‘Sometimes we use metaphors more deliberately, especially when we encounter unfamiliar phenomena—such as a new virus.’
Why do we reach for metaphors, seemingly instinctively, when we encounter the unknown? Nerlich explained: ‘We grope for something familiar that makes the unfamiliar understandable, as when we say that the virus is an evil genius or that bringing down infection rates is flattening the curve or, even, squashing the sombrero.
‘No normal person understands mathematical modelling, but everybody understands what squashing a sombrero looks like.’
Does language use during the outbreak tell us anything new about how metaphors work?
‘I am not sure yet whether we have gained new insights into metaphor use in public discourse’, said Nerlich. ‘I have noticed that there is quite a sustained pushback against the war metaphor, which I haven’t seen to quite that extent in other outbreaks of what people now call “viral discourse”’.
What makes this crisis unusual, then, is a self-reflexive attempt to re-shape its metaphorical narrative. Veronika Koller, reader in discourse studies, and Elena Semino, professor of linguistics, both of the University of Lancaster, are leading the ‘pushback against the war metaphor’ and calling for alternative ways of talking about Covid-19.
‘War metaphors can be useful at the beginning of a crisis, when it is important to communicate the urgency and seriousness of a situation. At that point, war metaphors can help to foster solidarity and determination. However, every metaphor allows for further extensions that may be less helpful’, Semino and Koller told me.
‘For example, if healthcare systems are seen as a "front line", then healthcare workers become soldiers, whose lives are ultimately expendable for a greater cause. And we know from research in psychology that metaphors make people not only talk about, but actually experience something in terms of something else. So persistent use of war metaphors in the media and by politicians can increase anxiety and, over time, lead to despair or fatalism if there is no clear-cut “victory” in sight.’
Using the #ReframeCovid
hashtag, Koller and Semino have launched a worldwide appeal for non-war-related metaphors that convey the severity of the crisis and emphasise the importance of sticking to the rules, yet retain a sense of hope and inspiration.
To explore different ways of talking about the virus Koller and Semino teamed up with Paula P. Sobrino, a cognitive linguist at Universidad de La Rioja, and Inés Olza, a linguistics researcher at the Universidad de Navarra. Sobrino introduced the #ReframeCovid hashtag to encourage linguists and the public to suggest and share alternative coronavirus metaphors. Koller then set up the #ReframeCovid database.
The database now contains more than 250 visual and verbal metaphors used in relation to the coronavirus, using imagery drawn from classical music
, Harry Potter
, marathon running
, and more. Contributions to the database come from a diverse range of sources including art works and artist statements, presidential speeches, social media posts, threads and videos, newspapers, billboards, blogs, sports journalism, Whatsapp audio recordings, reported conversations and more.
As Koller and Semino suggested, the spread of coronavirus has caused widespread anxiety
, with NHS workers at risk of PTSD
and experts announcing
that ‘Covid is likely to have major impacts on mental health now and into the future’. The widespread use of war rhetoric has doubtless played a part in this trend, so should those in power be held responsible?
In particular, the UK’s political leaders have been heavily criticised by linguists for careless language that seemed, at least at first, ignorant or dismissive of the severity of the crisis. ‘The WHO itself later acknowledged that the term ‘social distancing’ gave the wrong impression and substituted 'physical distancing' in its official announcements,’ said Thorne.
‘The UK government, however, has relied on its traditional speechwriters and spin doctors in generating its messages about Covid-19 and has unfortunately not, as far as I can tell, consulted any linguists or discourse specialists’.
‘This means they have often misjudged both the tone and the content of their messages. Unthinkingly referring to 'herd' as in herd immunity, allowing their courtier journalists to use the term 'cull', repeating soundbite mantras such as 'following the science' and casually referring to testing or tracing when these were not actually taking place has been patronising and confusing’, he added.
Such radical changes to everyday vocabularies look here to stay for as long as the virus still poses a threat. But what if any, long term effects might the 'medicalisation of everyday language' and the proliferation of ‘coronaspeak’ have on the way we think, speak, and represent our experiences?
‘Both the experience and the new language of the pandemic have introduced a host of concepts into our national conversation, and these are likely to remain in our consciousness as long as they remain relevant’, Thorne explained.
‘More broadly, we have seen how societal changes have marked our language; the 'marketisation' of English under the influence of neoliberal economic policies from the 1980s and Thatcherism, the penetration of economic terminology since the 2008 recession and during austerity, the weaponisation of public discourse with brexit and populism.’
Does that mean that this pandemic, like other major events in recent history, will leave a long-term impression on language?
‘I think it's likely that people will now use more 'medical' language in their everyday life and be more sensitised to medical practices and medical mindsets, health issues and hygiene in general and this is unlikely to stop. Medical metaphors and imagery are likely to pervade literature and popular culture for some time.’
As the UK government extended the national lockdown for a further three weeks
, it is clear we will be speaking and thinking about Covid-19 for a long time to come. Language plays a vital role in our experience of the world and can shape how we perceive, think, and act. It is important to reflect on and take control of the language we use, instead of unthinkingly assimilating the instinctive but ill-fitting metaphors handed down from those in power.
If, as Toni Morrison suggested, language is the measure of our lives, the way we speak about Covid-19 represents an opportunity to use more compassionate and thoughtful metrics to record our experiences in a time of crisis.
How you can get involved
All the linguists and experts featured in this report invite readers to submit their examples of the new words, usages, and metaphors for talking about coronavirus. By sharing your experience you can help record languages changes and support research in the field.
Use the hashtag, email Tony Thorne (firstname.lastname@example.org
) or tweet @tonythorne007 to submit new terms for the glossary.
Metaphors in the time of coronavirus
Contact Brigitte Nerlich (email@example.com
) to share any new and interesting coronavirus metaphors or linguistics research on the topic.
Reach out to Veronika Koller (firstname.lastname@example.org
) and/or Elena Semino (email@example.com
) or contribute directly to the #ReframeCovid database.