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Precipitous parlance in a pandemic


When this year began, few would have guessed that it would end in multiple pandemics accompanied by an infodemic and a lockdown. A second wave was something for surfers (who were still allowed in the water), social distancing was for snobs, and zol was a noun, not a verb.  This year has given us a whole new lexicon, one most of us would prefer not to have learned.

I think wistfully back to when the biggest news story was corruption at Eskom and load-shedding was the worst thing we had to Janu-worry about.  Since then the utility has coined a whole new term for power cuts: load reduction.  And just to add to our misery, load-shedding has made another ugly appearance in December.

Since January, Covid-19 has unleashed wave after wave of lexical innovation.  At this time of year, dictionaries around the world participate in what is usually a cottage industry of naming “words of the year”.  This year, we’ve been manufacturing new words faster than the vaccine, to the extent that the Oxford English Dictionary, citing “seismic shifts in language data and precipitous frequency rises in new coinage”, decided that they couldn’t choose one single word. 

Pandemic” was selected as word of the year by Merriam-Webster and  The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March.  In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa started referring to gender-based violence as a pandemic in June.  Recently, the United Nations Development Programme dubbed corruption a pandemic.  By now, I’m not just tired of pandemics; I’m tired of things being dubbed as pandemics. 

An etymologically related creation is “infodemic”, used to describe the torrent of information, true and false, about Covid-19 that is being generated and spread throughout the world.  Even people with PhDs are finding it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff, a situation not helped by the politicisation and weaponisation of fake news pioneered by none other than soon-to-be-former United States President Donald Trump.  I’d be happy to forget his “I’m not a doctor, but…” pronouncements on Covid-19 treatment measures and bizarre stories of people drinking Jik.

The Pan South African Language Board and Collins Dictionary chose “lockdown” as the word of the year.  It’s needless to explain the negative connotations of this word, which made us all feel like prisoners in our own homes.  We now distinguish between a hard lockdown and a soft lockdown, something which would have been laughable in 2019.  Talk of transitions from level 5 to level 4 to level 3 and so on makes it seem as if we’re on some kind of stomach-churning gigantic sci-fi national elevator, which I guess is still better than a rollercoaster.

The Cambridge Dictionary chose “quarantine” as its word of the year.  According to Cambridge, this word has developed a new meaning, making it synonymous with “lockdown”.  In 2020, it was possible to come out of hard lockdown only to come into contact with someone with Covid-19 and land in quarantine, and then go into isolation when you found that you had contracted the virus yourself.  It’s no wonder this year has been a bit of a blur.

The stock phrases used to offer cold comfort in this odd situation have made my eyes glaze over even more.  The “new normal” has been so normalised that we forget that it sounds like something out of a George Orwell novel.  And I’m sea-sick from the number of times I’ve read that we are on “unchartered waters”.  Please, folks, if you’re going to use this cliché, at least get it right.  “Unchartered” refers to a flight, boat or taxi that has not been hired out yet.  The word for a sea that is not mapped is “uncharted”.

Don’t get me started on “social distancing”: I’d like to give all those who popularised that term a fat klap.  Lily Scherlis, an American PhD student, has written an article for Cabinet magazine on the ignominious history of this term that would give anyone pause for thought before using it.  The potted version is this: pre-Covid, “social distance” referred to the distance between me and any other group of people I am seeking to distinguish myself from, be it another  race, social class or sexual orientation.  Not exactly a great way to practise ubuntu. No wonder that experts, writing in the journal European Psychiatry, have encouraged the use of the term “physical distancing instead, and this advice has been taken up by Unicef and the WHO.

Another non-pharmaceutical intervention we sometimes forget, but shouldn’t, are humble fabric face masks. Overnight, face masks became a clothing essential that one may not legally leave the house without.  Now even my almost-two-year-old plays at putting on masks even though she’s too young to wear one.  Some in my family refer to a face mask as an “anti-Covid”.

South Africa has had many more of its own local Covid-related linguistic innovations, of course.  Not long after the first wave of the pandemic, we started hearing about the nefarious activities of “covidpreneurs”, a particularly inhumane breed of crooks who made millions out of tenders for personal protective equipment.  The less said about them, the better. 

The Dictionary Unit for South African English reports that cabinet minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma gave us the first ever recorded use of  zol as a verb on 29 April, when she “curbed the enthusiasm of ‘those who zol’ (smoke hand-rolled cigarettes) by announcing the extension of a temporary ban on tobacco products”.

It didn’t take long for DJ Max Hurrell to turn her words into a hilarious meme that made international headlines or for David Scott of The Kiffness to write a parody of the national anthem about them.

In a conversation with Tim van Niekerk, the Dictionary Unit’s director, he also reminded me of “after-tears parties”, a South African cultural phenomenon that is now banned, lest they become “super-spreaders”, another word I could do without.  Let’s hope and pray that in 2021 the vaccine will hit our shores and we can eventually have after-tears parties of another kind, as long as the virus doesn’t mutate and become Covid-20 or Covid-21!

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