Should we mind our language?

I saw a below-the-line comment on this report in The National about Covid restrictions which states that nobody – politicians and experts included – has any idea how to tackle the pandemic. That is incorrect. The way to tackle this pandemic is perfectly well understood. What is not known is how to make that solution politically and socially acceptable.

Humanity has known for centuries how to prevent the spread of contagious pathogens. Long before the causes of disease were discovered it was understood that some diseases are transmissible. It didn’t take advanced science to figure out that the way to prevent these diseases being passed from person to person was to keep the infected person well away from other persons. We used to call this ‘quarantine’. Quite why this perfectly adequate and appropriate term was dropped in favour of ‘isolation’ is also a matter of politics rather than medicine.

It says something about the world in which we live that governments concern themselves so much about finding language that doesn’t offend in which to talk about things which are inherently offensive. The military are often singled out as the worst culprits. There’s every chance that when the subject of euphemisms comes up then the first example that will spring to mind is “collateral damage”, referring to the incidental killing and wounding of non-combatants in the course of military operations. But we’re all guilty. We all do it. In conversation we all have a tendency to draw a linguistic veil over ideas that disturb. Death is a disturbing idea. Consider the euphemisms associated with death.

  • At peace
  • At rest
  • With the angels
  • Passed away
  • Crossed over
  • In repose
  • Summoned
  • Bite the dust
  • Pushing up daisies
  • Cash in one’s chips
  • Taking a dirt nap
  • Croaked

There’s a dozen. I’m sure you can think of a dozen more with little effort.

Sex is another example. Many people find the topic offensive or embarrassing so genteelisms proliferate. As one becomes too closely associated with the thing it refers to a new one is adopted. As if people were trying to distance themselves from thoughts they’d rather not deal with. As if they were ‘socially distancing’ themselves from the idea of sex. Or doing the courtesy of ‘socially distancing’ others from thoughts of sex. As if the idea itself could contaminate.

It is one of the quirks that make human nature endlessly interesting that we will so casually and habitually ‘quarantine’ the idea of disease using the mask of language while objecting – sometimes vehemently – to the physical quarantine which is the one sure way to combat the spread of contagious and/or infectious diseases. It is not merely the inconvenience and economic disruption that provokes extreme reactions such as we see with the anti-mask and anti-lockdown (another euphemism) demonstrations. There is a residual stigma attached to the idea of quarantine that traces its origins to the cultural belief that disease is a punishment. That being ill meant being guilty – of something.

Or just plain dirty. It is easy to see how inculcating the idea of disease and the diseased has been socially and culturally adaptive. Just as many (most?) religious dietary restrictions helped avoid diseases contracted from such things as pig-meat and shellfish, treating the diseased as something to be shunned helped enforce what we now call ‘social distancing’ – so that we don’t have to say ‘shunning’. The diseased and those close to them were similarly encouraged to go into lockdown (quarantine) by the fear of being stoned to death by neighbours and passers-by fearful of coming into contact with the unclean.

It evidently paid to use explicit and even exaggerated language when talking about disease. I am old enough to remember when as a child I would overhear snippets of conversation in which the subjects of polio and tuberculosis and scarlet fever and diphtheria and all the other things that were everyday horrors, particularly for parents in the good old days were discussed in hushed tones. There was a profound and advantageous aversion to disease which was actually encouraged by the language used to discuss it. An aversion which all too easily came to encompass the afflicted and even the treatment. Quarantine became a dirty word.

This unfortunate consequence aside, telling it like it is about disease was effective. So why are politicians so mealy-mouthed today? Nicola Sturgeon is generally regarded as having done an excellent job of communicating to the public important information relating to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the Scottish Government’s effort to combat the spread of disease. But has this communication been flawed? Might it not have been better to have reverted to the old way of thinking about disease? Or some variation on it? Has the softening of language been counter-productive?

Sometimes you have to go too far in order to end up where you want to be after compromise kicks in. Going too far gives you some leeway to make concessions but still get the outcome you are hoping for. Or close to it. It is better to go to far than to fall short. Go too far and when you retreat a little this will be seen as a favour. Don’t go far enough and when you have to go farther this will be regarded as an additional imposition. Piling pain on pain. Taking the pish!

When the First Minister imposed the national lockdown what seems like all those years ago (Is it really only months!?) there was little protest. Few accused her of going to far. In part, no doubt. this was because of the way she explained it. The evident openness – at least some of which was necessarily false. Treating people like adults – even if not very clever adults. The language used was carefully chosen. The aim was to sound the alarm without causing alarm. A neat trick if you can pull it off. Nicola Sturgeon largely has. The problems started when, doubtless under pressure from numerous quarters, she sought to ease the restrictions. At the time I warned that lockdown (quarantine) might be binary. All or nothing. Two states – on and off. And so it has proved. Although, as we’d expect, not in any simple way.

When lockdown was on, it affected everybody. Even if it didn’t affect everybody equally, it was universal enough to allow the convenient pretence that we’re ‘all in it together’. Which is commonly a politician’s euphemism for you’re all (mostly) getting (differentially) screwed because I/we fucked up. Although not so much on this occasion. Which also helped make the restrictions acceptable. It was a no-fault penalty. It wasn’t the politicians who had fucked up. It was nature that was fucking with us.

Another important thing about a universal lockdown was that the message was simple. It only became complicated when there began to be exceptions to the general rule. The public is a dumb beast. The public doesn’t cope well with complicated messages. If it involves more than one idea then there will be difficulties. If it involve more than three things then you best accept that numbers 3 to whatever will fall by the wayside and probably take at least two of the first three with them. Leaving one. Tell everybody to do one thing and tell them in the right way – as Nicola Sturgeon does – and they will do it. For the most part they will do it. There will be exceptions. But you have to go all in so as to end up failing safe. Or as safe as can be,

The ‘all in it together’ idea has another advantage which may not be as well recognised as KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) but which may be just as important. When stigma is spread that thinly it ceases to be stigma. Stigma can only exist where there is an unaffected group to do the stigmatising. When everybody is affected it becomes impossible to point at others any more than they can point at you. It all cancels out. Quarantine is destigmatised. Those overheard adults wouldn’t have had to whisper about Uncle Eddie being sequestered in a tuberculosis quarantine facility (locked up in a sanitorium) and I wouldn’t have had to eavesdrop.

To paraphrase The Chiffons, “Hey la, hey la, the stigma’s back!”. And we’re gonna be in trouble.

There’s no more lockdown. It’s quarantine! The word may conjure unpleasant ideas – a psychological hangover from an earlier age – but quarantine was always what Nicola Sturgeon was talking about without emphasising either the word or its associations. Quarantine was always what was necessary. Total quarantine! Of everybody! That’s what’s required to “tackle the virus”. That’s what’s always been required. Our forebears knew this. But they weren’t afraid to say it. Even if it meant making people social outcasts.

The word ‘quarantine’ implies a prohibition on any and all contact with other people. Maybe that’s the kind of language Nicola Sturgeon should have been using from the outset. Maybe it’s the kind of language she needs to be using now. Perhaps it’s the language she’ll be obliged to use now that lockdown has been switched off – it’s a switch, more than a dial, remember! Perhaps it’s already too late.

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4 thoughts on “Should we mind our language?

  1. I have much experience of euphemisms because I have a terminal disease. For the purposes of receiving my PIP it is called “a long term illness”. The euphemisms for my condition are legion! My favourite euphemism is “side effects”. This signifies the effects of medication that are not desired. The same drug when used for one treatment will have “side effects” that are the required effects when used as a treatment for something else. Side effects are very like collateral damage.


  2. I think that that not enough positive connotations associated with the period of curtailment, restriction, civil liberties suspension etc.

    At the outset in March, and for recreation purposes, I surrounded myself with a splendid selection of malt whiskies which I have been bravely working through in order of isolation. In fact it was splendid isolation! You just have to get into the spirit of it.

    Additionally I have had the time, like countless others no doubt, to hone my DIY skills: Doors have been taken off frames, hinges taken off doors and paint removed from hinges. All sanded and re-hung. Additionally locks were removed and paint stripped from them. So there have been 10 locks down to date in my own household alone.

    So euphemisms can be fun, if properly adapted. If you will. So to speak. As it were. To coin a phrase (with thanks and apologies to Billy Connolly circa 1974).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have been very comfortable with lockdown myself. I KNOW that it’s not the same for everybody. But if people are allowed to bang on about how horrible it has been for them then it should be perfectly permissible for others to say how it’s been OK for them. It all comes down to how willing you are to adapt. And, of course, how much scope you have for adapting. I know when there’s children and elderly parents and work commitments and whatever this reduces the scope somewhat. But I’d be prepared to wager that most of those doing the most complaining could adapt much more/better than they have.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, it shouldn’t really be that difficult.

        No matter how much the military fetishists and nostalgia addicts go on about it this is, to state the blindingly obvious for those who choose to see, not a war situation.

        Bombs are not raining down on us, nobody is being asked to take up a Tommy gun and front up to an armed enemy or join a convoy taking essential supplies to an ally in treacherous conditions etc.

        We are merely being requested to show a bit of self restraint, a bit of discipline, a bit of self denial. For a while. In order that all of us and our descendants (hopefully) benefit from the joy and privilege of life.

        It really isn’t too much to ask.

        Liked by 2 people

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