Among the many things lockdown has bequeathed to us is a new vocabulary. During a text conversation with an old friend in the early days of the pandemic, I caught myself texting him about R numbers and viral loads, realising that here I was speaking with apparent authority on a subject I had known virtually nothing about four weeks previously. Indeed, the casual way I’ve just used “lockdown” and the fact we all know exactly what I’m talking about is proof of this – a mere four months ago, the lack of a shared experience of the word would have meant it required explanation and qualification. Lockdown has a particularly authoritarian sound to it, so it’s remarkable how quickly we’ve adapted to it as part of this “new normal” – and, of course, “new normal” is itself another incursion into our speech, a strangely mismatched phrase that folds the life-altering paradigm shift of a lethal global pandemic into the conference-centre blandness of managerial jargon.
Usually it takes quite a while for a new word or phrase to be so widely adopted by such diverse demographics, but in the space of a few months our realities have shifted so dramatically that we’ve required a whole new lexicon to make sense of them and to articulate our new situation. Language has been shifting at viral speed, with alarming new configurations of once innocuous terms landing in our minds and mouths with the determination of tyrants. Social distancing, shielding, second waves, PPE, these terms circle us in 2020, marking the parameters of our new circumstances, their omnipresence in direct contrast to their novelty – as with the virus itself, we didn’t recognise them as recently as January, February or even well into March of this very year.
This is a new language that has been birthed from unusual sources – there has been no other time in my life when the medical profession and various government wonks have been so successful at infiltrating my conversation with their verbal formulations, and I suspect the same applies to the population at large. Normally new words might spring from technological change (email, doxxing, swipe right) or bubble up from expressive marginalised black cultures (usually erasing the originators on the way – no doubt there are many who think phrases like “Yasss Kween” were first coined by sassy make-up influencers rather than the black and Latino queer vogue scene). But this is something different – a set of terms dreamt up by PR chiefs and doctors intended to be less descriptive rather than more, terms to placate and soothe, to give a sense of control and security, rather than to risk forcing the public to grapple with the horrific prospect of millions of deaths. And because the language we currently have has emerged in this atypical, top-down way, perhaps it’s only a stopgap standing in before the next wave of terminology emerges – language that is born of radical theory, language that is born of the streets, language that will give more realistic vent to our feelings, our hopes and fears.