The Orwellian Language of the Covid-19 Pandemic – If Orwell Updated 1984
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If George Orwell was alive today and was writing an updated version of 1984, much of the language used in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic would feature prominently. A whole lexicon has been created for Covid-19, and it’s strikingly Orwellian. If we put aside all health concerns for a second, and just focus on the language of the pandemic, it’s truly bizarre. Terms such as social bubbles, self-isolation, social distancing, contact tracing, shielding, lockdown and quarantine, read like they belong in the pages of some obscure dystopian novel. Furthermore, some Covid-19 words sound like they have come directly from Orwell’s newspeak. Doomscrolling, for instance, is a word invented due to the pandemic and refers to people addictively scrolling through their phones desperate for the latest apocalyptic news hit. Another Covid-19 word is Blursday, where days and time blur into one Covid-19 blackhole.
If we focus more on the history of some of these Covid-19 words, a disturbing picture is revealed in certain instances. Lockdown for example, one of the most popular Covid-19 words, traditionally referred to the prison system, where wardens confine “prisoners to their cells for all or most of the day as a temporary security measure.” In contrast however, the history of the term self-quarantined is actually quite interesting. It was first used in 1878 in reference to an incident that took place in 1666, when the population of Eyam, a village in England, isolated itself to stop the bubonic plague from spreading to villages close by, such as Sheffield, with Eyam losing at least a third of its population due its decision to self-quarantine.
More broadly however, the social practices and rules that are now in place in many countries are concerning on many levels. The push for people to wear masks is a worrying trend for instance. Even though people in many Asian countries are more accustomed to wearing masks than in Western countries, and masks may have some merit in relation to transmission control, the social implications of everyone wearing a mask are disconcerting, as masks are dehumanizing. Masks cut off a large percentage of a human being’s facial profile: the movement of our mouths, checks, jaw, teeth, tongue and nose, are all hidden. The fact that masks conceal your face is obviously why criminals wear them to conceal their identity. For young children living through this pandemic, they are being conditioned into the new abnormal of seeing adults wearing masks and gloves for doing such basic human tasks as going food shopping.
It is clear that Covid-19 is not ushering in the new normal; but the new abnormal! In fact, the whole use of the term ‘new normal’ is bizarre in itself. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the term new normal could only really be found in academic journals or in talks by independent researchers such as Alan Watt; yet now, it is front page news on a daily basis, with government ministers incessantly using the term.
The good news however is that various Orwellian apps that governments have been attempting to roll out are failing in many countries around the world.
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Kelion, L. (15 June, 2020) Coronavirus: Contact-tracing apps face further hitches, BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-53051783
Kelion, L. (18 June, 2020) UK virus-tracing app switches to Apple-Google model, BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-53095336
Mckenna, D. (5 Nov. 2016) Eyam plague: The village of the damned, BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-35064071
Merriam-Webster, Definition of Lockdown https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lockdown
Paton, B. (9 April, 2020) Social change and linguistic change: the language of Covid-19, Oxford English Dictionary https://public.oed.com/blog/the-language-of-covid-19/
Ro, C. (25 May, 2020) Why we’ve created new language for coronavirus, BBC News https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200522-why-weve-created-new-language-for-coronavirus
Watt, A. Cutting Through the Matrix https://www.cuttingthroughthematrix.com/
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