The word “alert” comes from the Italian “all’erta”, literally “at a high place”, describing a military watch or guard duty. The UK government’s advice to “stay alert” in order to “control the virus” therefore implied that it would be easier to spot an invisible microbe if one were standing on a hill. Perhaps the underlying motivation for this much-ridiculed slogan was that it set the rhetorical scene for future spikes in deaths to be blamed on the people themselves. Did you die of Covid-19? Too bad: you weren’t alert enough. Survival of the fittest, and all that.
If you can’t actually do something, it might help to claim that you have the “capacity” to do it at some undefined point in the future. Capacity strictly means the ability to take in a certain quantity of things (so, the capacity of a theatre or a vessel), but its modern business (and so political) use speaks rather to the potential ability to put out a certain quantity of things, whether widgets or Covid-19 tests. In this way one can boast of increasing one’s “capacity” for crucial work even as the quantity of work isn’t increasing. The great Thomas de Quincey once wrote: “Men of genius have a larger capacity of happiness”, which might explain why Boris Johnson is looking so glum and irritable these days.
The term “coronavirus” was coined in 1968 by a group of virologists who wrote to Nature magazine to describe a family of viruses that, under a microscope, look like balls with a “characteristic ‘fringe’ of projections […] which are rounded or petal shaped”, and so reminded them of the sun’s corona (from the Latin for “crown”). Early reports that sales of Corona beer had fallen of a cliff seem to have been part of the infodemic (qv), but the word has given rise to some happy portmanteaus such as the reassuring term for weight put on during lockdown, the “coronastone”.
The UK government promised workers that their workplaces would be made “covid-secure” so that it would be safe to return, as all are now expected to do by August. This, however, is bilge, at least if “secure” means “protected from or not exposed to danger; certain to remain safe and unthreatened” (OED): in that sense, the only way to make an office covid-secure is to hermetically seal it from the outside world and allow no one in. Perhaps this piece of paramilitary rhetoric is really aimed at warding off lawsuits under the Health and Safety at Work Act, which requires places of employment to be “safe”. If the government has said they are “secure”, how could they be unsafe?
Only a cynic would suppose that when the rules were introduced mandating “face coverings” on public transport, the government was trying hard not to be seen contradicting earlier advice that public mask-wearing was unnecessary. (The motivation for that advice was almost certainly to preserve limited supplies of masks for health workers.) The potentially sinister aspect of masks is coded into its etymology: probably from the post-classical Latin “masca” meaning evil spirit or ghost. Now bloviating defenders of libertarian freedom call masks “muzzles”, perhaps because they are nervous about their own bigotry no longer being clearly audible through a cloth barrier, and some have even complained about “mask Nazis”, which inflammatory rhetoric would in more ordinary times be a good reason to cover one’s face in shame.
Early on in the pandemic, the government announced that new antibody tests would be a “game-changer”, before it turned out that the millions of such tests it had ordered were useless; luckily, a potential method of treating the virus with interferon-B has now been hailed as another “game-changer”. According to the OED, the term “game-changer” was first applied, in 1962, to a single man: the American football player Bob Sheflo. Since then, a “game-changer” has been anything that thoroughly disrupts the current way of thinking or doing things, as well as anything that does nothing of the sort except in the hopeful minds of marketers. Whether it has been appropriate throughout the pandemic to imply that the response was merely a “game” is a nice question.
In classical Latin, a “hero” is someone with unheard-of strength or other abilities, favoured by the gods or actually semi-divine. The word arrives in English in retellings of such mythologies, and then also comes to be applied to soldiers who exhibit particular bravery, or civilians of notable excellence. Only in the modern age do whole categories of employment contain “heroes”, especially in US English, where it applies to every member of the armed forces and, for a while after 9/11, to police and firefighters. During the pandemic, all doctors and nurses also became “heroes”, which is a pleasant tribute that costs the speaker little, though it is understandable if many healthcare professionals found it irritating. After all, heroes don’t need our help, and if they die that is even more heroic.
Perhaps one good thing to come out of this time will be a reluctance to continue using “viral” as a term of admiration, as in viral tweet or viral marketing. On the other hand, there might be an increasing medicalisation of political rhetoric, as with the revival of the scary term “infodemic”, used by the WHO in the spring to describe a deluge of misinformation about Covid-19. It was coined in 2003 by the American writer David J Rothkopf to describe the falsehoods then circulating about the Sars outbreak, but did not then manage to become endemic in popular speech, as it now might. At first glance the portmanteau word looks like nonsense etymologically, since the “-demic” part of pandemic means simply “the people” or “peoples”, but perhaps it carries a dark implication that allowing everyone to act as spreaders of information on Twitter, Facebook and the like, has at best had mixed consequences.
The “nouvelle vague” in French originally described the emerging youth culture of the late 1950s, and was then applied to the cinema of Roger Vadim, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The phrase passed into English in 1960s as “new wave”, and was enthusiastically applied thereafter to various novel clusters of cultural production, particularly in 1970s rock and punk music. A “new wave” (or “second wave”) of Covid-19 infections, if the R (qv) goes up over 1 again, by contrast, will not feel so hip. But the oceanic metaphors for the pandemic (waves, surges) don’t help either, as they instil a sense of inevitability and helplessness while erasing agency. A wave or surge of water is an impersonal natural phenomenon, but a wave or surge of illness might be the consequence of a political decision.
The black humour of referring to Covid-19 as “the plague” was a cathartic example of dysphemism: the opposite of euphemism, describing something as worse than it really is. The word comes from the Latin “plaga” meaning “wound” and later “illness”, and in time was applied to any pestilential thing or person. The cliche “to avoid something like the plague” is first recorded in a form written by the 17th-century Quaker leader William Penn, who founded the province of Pennsylvania. “An able bad man,” he wrote, “is an ill Instrument, and to be shunn’d as the Plague.” We should give thanks, then, that we have only incompetent bad men leading us.
In epidemiology, R0 is the “basic reproduction rate” of a disease, where “R” is the number of other people a carrier will on average infect, and “0” indicates that no one in the population is immune. As an epidemic wears on, some will become immune, so it makes more sense to use the “effective reproduction number” – Re, or just R – which assumes an only partially susceptible population. Oddly, while numbers such as pi or unknown variables such as x don’t usually take a definite article in speech, it seems impossible to talk simply of “R” rather than “the R”, or (tautologously) “the R number” or “the R value” or “the R rate”. This might be easier to pronounce fluently, but it unhelpfully implies that R is a single monolithic number applying to the whole country, whereas in fact it varies by region, as the citizens of Leicester have uncomfortably discovered.
People with compromised immunity and other conditions were from early on advised to “shield”, and were referred to as “shielding”, an unusual intransitive use of the verb that normally requires a shielder and a shieldee. Among the earliest metaphorical uses of the verb in English are references to God as the one who shields (protects or shelters) a faithful person, but in a modern secular age it seems one can count only on oneself. The very old Germanic word “shield” originated as the term for an armoured plate carried in a soldier’s hand, and so the pandemic usage was another example of the foolish governing metaphor of pandemic responses as warfare.
When used with a definite article, “the science” can often mean “the particular scientific viewpoints that I find convenient”. Thus the UK government’s claim always to have “followed the science” in its pandemic response, despite disagreement from many other scientists. Unfortunately, while it is appropriate to speak of “the science” with regard to settled matters such as the theories of gravity that enable spaceflight, it is misleading while there remain many unanswered questions about a pathogen that was discovered only at the end of last year, and it was especially obfuscatory when there were profound disagreements between different disciplines – behavioural science, mathematical modelling, virology – jostling early on to count as “the science” on the pandemic.
In the early days, news reports noted that those dying from Covid-19 had “underlying health conditions”: this vertical metaphor, as though the coronavirus sat atop a host of other problems, implied that the “underlying” conditions were the more profound and causally relevant. This in turn gave succour to a strand of performatively tough-minded opinion that argued such victims had it coming anyway, and it was unfair to stop the rest of us going to castles. By coincidence, the Minneapolis police department initially claimed that George Floyd, too, had “underlying health conditions”, implying that it was these, and not being choked to death by a policeman’s knee, that actually killed him. It is perhaps as well to note that we all have the underlying condition of being mortal, and one day we will all have died of something anyway.
Boris Johnson, in his usual mode of jaw-waggling bullshit, announced that the UK would have a “world-beating” test-and-trace system by early June. It did not, though some morbid jokers pointed out that the UK was at least “world-beating” in having one of the highest numbers of deaths per capita from Covid-19 of any country. But the prime minister’s vacuous promise betrayed a more profound poverty in outlook. Why, after all, do we have to beat the world? Why would we so fervently wish that more people die in other countries than in ours? The very use of “world-beating” in such a context betrays a merciless vision of the planet as a zone of bloody zero-sum competition. It is perhaps not surprising to find such an outlook in a juvenile solipsist, but the rest of us might feel that it’s past time for political rhetoric to grow up a little.
As a verb, “to zoom” means to move very quickly, particularly while making a humming or buzzing sound. In this form it was coined onomatopoeically in the 19th century, but it now has a new meaning owed to the videoconferencing corporation of that name, founded in 2011 but unknown to most till recently: shall I Zoom you? Can we Zoom? As an exclamation, says the OED, “zoom!” “frequently used to express a sudden swift movement or (figurative) a rapid change, as a sudden rise or fall in fortunes”, which is after all quite appropriate for these times, as well as for Zoom’s own stock price, which has roughly tripled during the pandemic. It has also recently announced that people who use it for free will not benefit from encryption to prevent others from snooping, which might remind us of another meaning of “zoom”: to scope out or spy on. As Aretha Franklin once asked, who’s zooming who?
• Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.