We’ve all learnt a new language, using words we never knew existed…
by Lou Rudkin
I’ve always said I’m a “words” person.
I love the rhythm, the sounds, the meanings, the history (or etymology, if you really want to bring out the big guns). Some words have been with us for centuries, and yet others appear, as if out of thin air, and join our everyday conversations with a new familiarity.
Can you be furloughed in self-isolation wearing PPE and calculating the R rate?
Our vocabulary has been stretched and potentially forever changed over the last few months, living in the time of a global pandemic. New words and phrases that would have been alien to us at the start of the year are now being typed, quoted, spoken and emailed thousands of times daily.
We find reassurance in the scientific words, safety in the public health instructions and comfort from the caring phrases that we see shared to protect everyone’s wellbeing.
Times of crises show us the importance that we place on words and how the words we use can be interpreted or (purposefully) misinterpreted. I work in mental health research communications and I’m conscious of how the nuances of positive and negative phrasing can be interpreted. A subtle change of word can reflect a different tone:
social distancing (to be remote, unconnected to a society or social circle)
physical distancing (to be a physical measured distance apart from someone)
self-isolation (to withdraw from a situation, to remove yourself from the outside world)
stay at home (not leaving your place of residence)
The use of military language has been particularly favoured by the government: we are on the “frontline”, “battling an invisible enemy”; we will “win”, we will be “victorious”, we will not be “beaten by this virus”. (Holding a mirror up to our sector for a moment, this is perhaps a trap many of us have fallen into as we plan our marketing “campaigns” and map our “target” audiences.)
The Prime Minister seeks to rouse a certain kind of Dunkirk spirit, but I find the horror of a global pandemic is a strong enough metaphor without the need to draw parallels with wars of the past. As the much-shared meme says, “Your grandparents were called to war, you’re being asked to sit on a couch. You can do this.”
Holding our vocabulary in quarantine
We have adapted our vocabulary to new ways of living and working, yet other words have been put on hold, in quarantine if you like, until a time when they feel more appropriate. When we return to normal (or “new normal” as it is being called in our pandemic lexicon) what words will we rediscover? And what of our newly learnt language will we have absorbed into normality?
Our job as communications professionals is to use words.
We use them to make change happen, give instructions, spread kindness and save lives. But we can also use these words to help those around us make sense of what is happening; to provide the reassurance, comfort and safety that can come from all sharing the same language.
Image via Liz West