Culture Opinion

Let’s talk Corona: the language of COVID-19

Artwork by Rosa Bonnin

Here’s something to do in lockdown – have a read of this paragraph:

“I am sick of these lockdowns! I’m tired of social distancing and Zooming, and I’ve had enough quarantinis to last me a lifetime. You know I’ve had to self-isolate twice in the last 2 months? I tested positive the second time though, so at least I’ve got some sort of immunity. Bloody hope I don’t get long-covid from it! And all those poor people quarantining in hotels… I know the government is trying to keep us safe but WHEN will this pandemic be OVER?”

For those of us lucky enough not to be fatally affected by the virus, that paragraph is some Standard British Chit-Chat in the time of Covid-19; something to talk about instead of the weather. And, of course, you understood everything you just read; maybe you stumbled over the word quarantinis but eventually you put its meaning together (quarantinis are lockdown cocktails, for anyone not in the know).

Have you ever stopped to think about how bizarre it is that these words and phrases – covid-19, long covid, lockdown, social distance, self-isolate, quarantine – are now second-nature to us, even though they were barely in use before the year 2020? Did you know that the phrase ‘self-isolate’ was only added to the Oxford English Dictionary in April 2020 and that since the start of the pandemic, lockdown has been used by journalists approximately 10.7 times more than the word lunch? Seems crazy when lunch is definitely the most exciting part of anyone’s day.

The coronavirus pandemic, whilst an unspeakable tragedy, is also a testament to the looseness of language. Spurred on by social upheaval, words slip in and out of use and pick up new meanings faster than Boris can vaccinate the elderly. Did you know that a ‘covid’ used to be a form of measurement in colonial India? Well, not anymore, if my continuous cough and high temperature have anything to say about it.

Not only has this pandemic massively redistributed the frequency of word use and so changed the face of British small-talk, it has also injected a wave of slang into the English language. Some of these words are being monitored by the Oxford English Dictionary for possible entry, such as covidiot, rona, doomscrolling, and maskne. Other new words have proven less durable: try morona, coronacation, coronapocalypse, Miss Rona and, *cringe*, locky-d. Have a look at Tony Thorne’s language and innovation blog for more covid-lingo, which is where I got most of these. I think my favourite is covid-rhyming-slang, Miley (Miley Cyrus – Coronavirus).

And why, might you ask, should anyone care about how Covid-19 affects the English language? For one, it makes English students feel like our degrees are relevant in the world. For another, having an awareness about the constant flow of words around you is important, because language shapes the way you think about reality. If you compare the two phrases, ‘300 people tested positive for Miley yesterday’ and ‘only 300 people tested positive for Miley yesterday’: the figure 300 seems smaller and less dramatic in your mind according to the word only. These techniques contribute to the shock-factor of newspaper headlines.

And that’s only the word only. What happens when core nouns and adjectives are altered according to an agenda? Michael Skaipner points out that the UK government has pushed two main metaphors over the course of the pandemic. When restrictions were first introduced back in March 2020, government briefings featured diction to do with war – invisible enemy, economic fight, the struggle, mission-critical, national battle, the people of this country will rise to the challenge – which aimed to stir up a sense of national pride, individual courage and faith in our leaders. Comparatively, government briefings in 2021 have tended to use language closer associated with a journey: the roadmap out of lockdown, we must proceed, the way to continue, step by step. In the latter case, the PM asks the public to hope and persevere in spite of tiresome restrictions. Do you agree with this narrative? The line between encouragement and manipulation is definitely a thin one, but I wouldn’t want to create another coronaspiracy.

It’s worth paying attention to the words and phrases coming out of these uncertain times  – ‘stay alert!’, says Bojo. We might also ask how much of this language change has been top-down, from politicians, scientists and journalists, and how much has been bottom-up, from the public and social media. Oxford English freshers are going to have a whale of a time writing about Covid in the years to come. For now, at least, it’s just kind of cool to notice, right? Or maybe that’s just me…

Further reading:

Oxford Languages, The Language of Covid-19: special OED update: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMpiClEOOcU

Tony Thorne, #CoronaSpeak – the language of Covid-19 goes viral – 2: https://language-and-innovation.com/2020/04/15/coronaspeak-part-2-the-language-of-covid-19-goes-viral/

Michael Skaipner, Financial Times, Coronavirus crisis creates new words that enter everyday language: https://www.ft.com/content/b7a6b3f0-830b-11ea-b872-8db45d5f6714?fbclid=IwAR1NVE8olTToQZqusesjzIzzdh8Kwo34d7LQLMHYIRJKUJdNrhvIVVqjmaU

Frequency of the word ‘lockdown’ compared to the word ‘lunch’ from 01/03/20 – 05/04/21 using News on the Web Corpus, https://www.english-corpora.org/now/

Becky Whant

Rebecca Whant is an opinion writer for The Oxford Blue. She is studying English at St Edmund Hall College and will hopefully go on to become a lawyer. As well as the UK, Rebecca is originally from The Seychelles.