A little known fact about me is that I studied English Literature at ‘A’ level. Of all my teachers, Terry Hardacker, my sixth form Literature teacher, was the most inspirational and gave me a genuine lifelong love of words and language. And I don’t mean the technical use of language but the prosaic, musical, lyrical and inventive use of language. During my ‘A’ level course we studied all the usuals of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and Wordsworth, but Terry also fed us a more challenging diet including the old English poetry from Caedmon, Aldhelm and Bede and classics like Beowulf. Consequently I’ve always been fascinated by language and how it has evolved and altered as our needs have changed.
Recently the pace of change of the spoken and written English language seems to have sped up significantly. In the last few months the slightly archaic term Furlough has re-emerged and dropped swiftly and neatly into the national lexicon, as has the phrase social-distancing. It is clear that the coronavirus pandemic has quickly expanded our vocabularies. We’ve learned new terms, like COVID-19, social distancing, key workers, doom-scrolling and flattening the curve. We’ve also learned important distinctions, such as epidemic vs. pandemic, quarantine vs. isolation, and respirator vs. ventilator. With typical British gallows humour and inventiveness, we’ve even come up with Coronageddon and Coronapocalypse. Even better, we used to have photo-bombing and now we have Zoom-bombing! We even now have Coronavirus specific three letter abbreviations (WFH), Emojis, and Cockney rhyming slang (Miley Cyrus - work it out!).
Former Professor of Modern English Language at the University of Nottingham, Ronald Carter, makes the point that “verbal play is often undertaken for humorous purposes, serving in part to bring people closer together”, as well as challenging the “normal” view of things. This isn’t intended to diminish the seriousness of the crisis but is a mixed response born from an inventiveness which is not just humorous and ornamental, but practical as well.
In a mere three months, coronavirus has fundamentally changed our ways of living. It has closed businesses and transformed our working and family lives. This new vocabulary has come to be a utilitarian shorthand for talking about coronavirus-related issues – from the impact the virus has had on our work, to the influence of the lockdown measures – or even just a way to poke fun and laugh at the world around us. The outpouring of metaphors, neologisms and lexical innovations we have seen in the past few months points to the fact that linguistic creativity is a key part of language, reshaping our ways of engaging with the world.
I know Terry would be rubbing his hands with glee and be teaching a class based on it...
John F Gilmour