Stephanie Davies asks whether our new vernacular isn’t facing up to the future.
Who fancies a game of pandemic bingo? The rules are simple. Read a few emails, monitor a few zoom calls, read a newspaper or watch a TV report and see how many of these common coronavirus-related phrases you can tick off. The winner gets a bog roll and a pocket-sized bottle of hand sanitiser.
Eyes down for a full house. Here we go: Unprecedented times; covidiot, covideo; social distancing; quarantine; self-isolation; flatten the curve; two-metre rule; stay safe; the new normal.
The pandemic has spawned its own vernacular which has jumped from niche to general usage faster than a corona virus jumps from a bat to a pangolin. Necessity is often the mother of linguistic invention in times of crisis.
The word ‘clusterf*ck’, for example, is a term coined during the Vietnam War and refers to a mishandled situation. It aptly describes another new language generating event, the UK’s departure from the EU. This gave us Brexit, brexiteers, remoaners, regrexit, backstops and hard borders.
I have developed a deep and loving bond with elasticated waistbands and am in no hurry to go back to old ways.
Some of the pandemic language is clever and inventive, such as the word ‘quarantini’, which describes the lockdown habit of indulging in sneaky cocktails during the day. Some has jumped from the medical sector to everyday terminology, such as R-rate, viral load and herd immunity.
Some language masks true meaning. My personal bugbear is the phrase ‘the new normal’, which is being used more frequently as lockdown eases. The phrase tends to lull us into a false sense of security. It implies that we are transitioning into a world that is familiar, and not too different from what came before. In truth, the world will be fundamentally changed.
Our habits and behaviours will change. If we are lucky, we are in a stop-gap, a limbo between vulnerability and immunity. However, there are no guarantees that an effective vaccine will be developed and if it is, no guarantees about when and how it will be globally administered.
Until that happens – if it happens – we need to be adaptable, resilient and ready for change. There is nothing normal about the situation and no assurance that we will ever transition from ‘the new normal’ back to the ‘old normal’. Our language should reflect this and be forward-focused, rather than reflecting on the past.
I’m not being downcast in voicing this. There are many positives to come out of the situation. On a personal level, for example, Laughology’s cat, Barry, can now hear the sound of the pigeons mocking him from the neighbour’s garden, whereas before they were drowned out by traffic noise.
I have developed a deep and loving bond with elasticated waistbands and am in no hurry to go back to old ways. I’m scared that if I try and get in a pair of jeans now, my waist will implode in on itself, like a dying star collapsing into a black hole. I have learned how to cut hair. Badly.
I’m not going to lie. Work has been tough. My company delivers workshops, programmes and keynotes to organisations. The mass audience events we previously facilitated are no longer possible. However, like a lot of other businesses, we’ve adapted to survive. The pandemic accelerated our digitisation and online ambitions and we now do everything we did before as effectively online as we do face-to-face.
Sadly, there are of course some businesses that will find it harder to adapt than others and some will not survive. But there have been lots of success stories too, like the brewers and distillers unable to supply pubs that have started making hand sanitiser.
On my local high street one of the cafes has become a fruit and veg stall and does a better trade in tomatoes and avocados than it ever did in bacon sarnies.
These positives show that there is a future we can thrive in, even if it is only for a short-term period. So maybe we shouldn’t be talking about the new normal, maybe we should just call it ‘now’.
About the author
Stephanie Davies is founder of Laughology.