Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Media, language and corona

Michael Toolan

Plagues, pestilence, inundations and devastations, usually visited upon a complacent people, are as old as our oldest myths (perhaps we should have paid them more attention). But in Covid-19 and the global misery and havoc it is causing there is also something new and terrifying, never encountered in quite this way before. And as with every new phenomenon with the potential to turn our world upside down, our first response, immediate and intimate but with potential to go global, is in our language.

Coronavirus-19 is delivering a massive shock to the human world, and one of our natural reactions is to find solace in our talking, our shared communications, adjusting these the better to face up to this assault. Our language won’t cure us but, as always, it helps us cope. First we must give the thing a name. In English we’re converging on just a few variant forms: Coronavirus (with or without definite article, and some fluctuation in the spoken form between stressing the first or the second syllable), Coronavirus-19, CV-19, Covid, Covid-19, Corona. Some names are less neutral: for a while in Trumpian English it was called the Chinese virus (while Trump insisted this was not racist, it clearly incorporated the virus into US trade and security conflicts with China). Then we have to settle on some preferred descriptions of what the virus might do to us and we to it, making ourselves familiar with an array of labels, phrases and constructions that seem fit for the purpose: preparing a clear story of what might happen will help us if it does. I say ‘we’ but the traditional media, reporting the warnings and assurances of those with greatest power or authority — politicians, medical experts, public health officials — do most of the proposing and the rest of us follow suit: we recycle, re-tell, like our forebears rehearsing the goss round the village pump and pub fireplace. We follow those guardians’ linguistic lead, sometimes resistingly but mostly compliantly.

In a matter of weeks, we have adopted a sheaf of words and phrases so as to render the virus intelligible to us and perhaps survivable by us. Some of this Coronaspeak involves powerfully simple and basic English — stay at home, support the NHS, social distancing, flattening the curve — while other terms were previously rare in everyday English: lockdown, quarantine, self-isolation. A few may be being encountered by Britons at least for the first time: furlough, the R number. We’ve also learned the gruesome term used in some epidemiological circles (almost taboo elsewhere) to denote the effect of the virus scything its ruthless way through a care home community of the old and vulnerable: harvesting. Conversely, all public spokespersons at all times channel their expressions of sympathy (a cynic might say they are ‘performing caring’) by saying my heart goes out to (or our hearts go out to ) the bereaved. In a frequent curious misplacing of the adverb of empathy, many press items report that this or these persons have been sadly killed by the virus.

We’re all in this together, we were told for a few weeks, those using it recycling a phrase put to work in many crises before (successfully in World War Two, much less so after the 2008-9 banking damage). But this mantra seems to have retreated as it became clear that some are more in it than others, depending on what ‘it’ denotes: males over 70 of BAME ethnicity and a pre-existing health problem, where ‘it’ means risk of death; and all those living in poverty, if ‘it’ means Covid-engendered hardship. If we were all landed gentry, or part of the 1%, this staying-home mullarkey wouldn’t be so worrying. But all of us who need to go out to work know that a lockdown will be disastrous for the economy and our way of life — not straight away, but certainly after a period of time. But how much time? And how necessary is the stay home lockdown? Huge arguments rage, in the corridors of power, over what ‘too long’ or ‘the right length of time’ in this situation means; and similarly over whether the lockdown is ‘essential’ or only ‘highly advisable’, and over what conditions might justify moving from the former characterisation to the latter.

New-to-the-public acronyms have been mercifully few so far, but we’ve all learnt that PPE is now much more likely to refer to masks and other protective clothing than a social sciences degree. Plenty of this emerging sub-language is built — as language often is — around paired and even contrasting terms: aprons and gowns; droplets and aerosols; respirators and ventilators. And while the authorities may take the linguistic lead, the rest of us (locally or more widely via social media) may contest and correct their language, to have things more on our own terms. It’s physical distance actually, not social distance; isn’t a required self-isolation just a sweeter smelling euphemism for solitary confinement or house arrest ? More generally there are doubts as to whether the Government is managing things as well as they might, and this too emerges in our language discriminations: we notice the difference between claims about testing X thousand people and having the capacity to test X thousand people; we see the difference between testing and tracing (or more fully, contact tracing ). We’ve learned to talk about antibodies and to grasp that their presence may not imply immunity and so on.

The life-threatening power of the Coronavirus has prompted, from the Government spokespersons especially, plenty of war and battle metaphors. Those working in hospital intensive care units are NHS heroes , and invariably on the front line, rather than at very high risk , thereby reminding the nation that those carers are ‘battling’ for us and our loved ones (anyone climbing Everest or skydiving is at very high risk, but they’re not doing it for us and we don’t owe them anything). We are told we will in time defeat the virus, and meanwhile we must ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed. It won’t be, if those shielding the vulnerable strictly staying home are successful: shielding is an opaque military metaphor, since the shielder is rigorously avoiding all potential infection-carriers on the ‘battlefield’ beyond the home. Having belatedly grasped the enormity of the challenge, in response to criticisms of inadequate testing and insufficient supplies of protective clothing, the government and its agents are working night and day, and straining every sinew (or striving every sinew, in one ministerial declaration). These may aim to echo Henry the Fifth’s language in his ‘Once more unto the breach’ speech at Harfleur: Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood. It’s always useful for English politicians to deploy Shakespeare in their pronouncements, better even than Churchill.

In America, President Trump refers now to the invisible enemy, again invoking a war scenario and a sneaky external adversary. Interestingly, very little of the CV-sponsored language was at first oriented to care homes and those caring for their residents, reflecting insufficient government and media attention to these hot spots , as we’ve learned to call them. Getting the naming right, that is, adopting a naming that others come to accept as ‘fit’, is part and parcel of taking control (or, in the case of Coronavirus, taking back control). When the authorities use a naming and language that the rest of us accept they have a chance of controlling the narrative. We try to tame by naming, using language in one of the ways we have always done, to try to make sense of a scary, dangerous world. Without a degree of shared naming and shared narrative and the collective outlook they project, random factions and individuals are freer to talk and act in unsanctioned ways. Including not accepting that there’s a rogue virus out there at all.

Anyone sceptical about aspects of our government’s strategy — or those of governments elsewhere around the world — will naturally question the namings proposed. In Britain, perhaps no noun phrases are more controversial, as used by the Government, than the science and the scientists, continually invoked, and used as a shield against all objections, as if these were monolithic repositories of wisdom and judgement. The scientists are impliedly the ‘reasonable’ term in an antonymic pair, the opposed group comprising the non-scientists, the superstitious, those guided by beliefs rather than facts.

I’m not going to mention all the more light-hearted or whimsical-defiant neologisms people are disseminating on social media, mostly for laughs in a time of scarce comedy. I doubt many of these will take root, although covidiots may have had some traction during the height of the lockdown (people who disregarded the ‘stay home and distant’ injunctions to socialise or play sports in the park). If and when the virus is tamed, what certainly will survive is the name, with these new associations to add to the many previous. Among these, the name of a Toyota sedan car (I drove one myself) which went through ten generations of updating, across more than forty years up to the millenium. The middlest of middle-of-the-road vehicles of solid build, reliable, sober, safe as a life-long marriage. Or consider what corona meant for poet Seamus Heaney. A knowable corona, A throwaway love-knot of straw, he called the harvest bow his father would plait from an ear of corn, shaping his silent contentment. But our corona is a silent killer, carried on the breath, seeking out new hosts on which to fasten, a global harming.

Covid-19 : the missing final entry on a hundred thousand CVs… And now I recall that Corona was the name of a favourite carbonated drink of my childhood, much preferred to Tizer, R. White’s, Vimto and the rest of them, discontinued decades ago; killed by a Coke overdose, I assume. That Corona is now a very distant memory. Maybe in time our corona will be too: I’ll drink to that.

The Language of Inequality in the News by Michael Toolan
The Language of Inequality in the News by Michael Toolan

About The Author

Michael Toolan

Michael Toolan is a Professor of English Language in the Department of English Language& Linguistics at the University of Birmingham. Most of his research and publications have co...

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