“Lockdown to be extended!”

Has there ever been a better example of how language controls our thoughts?

On Youtube, there’s a channel called Tested which is hosted by Adam Savage, one of the original two presenters of the much-missed science and engineering show, Mythbusters. He now indulges his love of modelmaking and all things technical by creating replicas of various movie props for his viewers. He’s currently self-isolating like most of us but in that supremely Californian way they have over there, he never refers to it as “lockdown”. This is all about “sheltering-in-place”.

Now, the phrase “sheltering-in-place” has a long history before the current crisis. It reeks of FEMA and those American public service broadcasts of the 1950s that had schoolchildren hiding under school desks in the event of a nuclear blast. Yet the difference in the way the language works is striking when you hear it from the context of the British “lockdown”.

Suddenly, this isn’t about a government locking us in our homes. This is about us as individuals given agency to keep ourselves out of harms’ way. Rather than feed those awful narratives emerging from the crazier fringes of our politics, both Left and Right, we have a phrase which speaks to that sensible self-protection we all are choosing to implement to various degrees within the government’s guidelines.

Words do matter. The concept is hardly new. Orwell gave us perhaps the most well-known example with “Newspeak”, that Party-controlled language that allowed the state to control people’s thoughts. It does, however, make one wonder about those teams of behavioural scientists we hear about guiding the decisions of the UK government. They wisely knew that boredom would become a factor so why didn’t they anticipate the problems inherent in calling the current situation a “lockdown”?

Take the phrase “social distancing”, which really hasn’t ever been about social distancing. Social contact isn’t always defined by our proximity to people. You needn’t be shaking hands and patting people on the back to remain sociable. The current popularity of the group-meeting app Zoom proves just that. What we’re talking about is “physical distancing”, which is one of those phrases you might now sometimes hear for the obvious reason that now more than ever it’s important to retain everything about our society, even as we hold ourselves apart from each other.

Another example is the word “flu”. One of the perceived flaws with the government’s approach at the very beginning of this pandemic was the degree to which “flu” was being used to describe the effects of COVID-19. A “senior Conservative Party politician” was quoted across media recently saying that the people involved in the modelling had previously been working on the threat from the flu. This, according to the politician, produced a “cognitive bias”. As our Prime Minister and so many others now understand, this isn’t a “flu”. It never was. It’s a severe respiratory disease. These nuances matter.

Oddly, one of the first people to have noticed that words matter was the current President of the United States. Donald Trump wasted a considerable amount of time over past weeks trying to redefine the coronavirus as the “Chinese flu” and now the “invisible enemy”. This strategy even prevented the G7 from issuing a joint statement about the crisis back in March, when the other members refused the American request to term it the “Wuhan flu”.

In Trump’s case, the language mattered for political reasons. If he could establish in people’s minds that the disease was somehow foreign or supernatural, he would appear less culpable for any failings of his administration. He might well be right, though Trump does face the larger obstacle of his own words being fed back to the American people. Call it what he likes, but he also said it “goes away in April” back in February.

The language around COVID-19 shaped perceptions back when it emerged, throughout its spread, and it will continue to shape it going forward. People already talk about getting back to “normal” when they should be preparing for a “new normal”. Governments should be taking the chance to define that language, rather than leaving it to the likes of Peter Hitchens who uses his column in The Mail on Sunday to throw around words like “Stazi”, “Napoleonic” and “despotic” to describe a situation which could not reasonably be described as anything of the sort.

We are being prepared for “recession” and “depression” while Amazon shares reach a record high, suggesting, rather, that with this paradigm shift in the ways we shop, live, work, and relax, there also come great opportunities. Words help us understand what happened but what is to come, and it needn’t be that future, also predicted by Orwell and currently doing the rounds on social media, of “a boot stamping on a human face – forever”.

It might, rather, be a face mask protecting us for a time; a chance, too, to value the science that has sometimes seemed so unfashionable in recent years but now giving us, in a very real sense, a new enlightenment.