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They say that the first casualty of war, or indeed any major crisis, is the truth. That may be so, but one of the first hostages is language.

Of particular interest to us as writers is the gradual takeover of the language used in relation to coronavirus – ‘language infiltration’, if you like – as a new lexicon develops to verbally frame the crisis.

 

Unprecedented

Currently, we find ourselves in ‘unprecedented’ times: what is occurring is ‘unprecedented’; the response to the crisis is ‘unprecedented’. Of course, the use of ‘unprecedented’ is perfectly legitimate in this context. Indeed, you would have to be well over 100 to remember a global pandemic on this scale, or one with such a high potential number of fatalities (i.e. the Spanish flu of 1918–1920). But it is interesting how commentators on a gathering crisis seize upon a particular word – ambush it, even – and will not let go. Certain words become ‘paroles de notre temps’ (words of our times) – widely accepted as the ‘go-to’ words for describing and making sense of what we are facing. At times, it makes one wonder whether these commentators have heard of a thesaurus? This writer’s friend can provide several suitable synonyms: extraordinary, remarkable, unparalleled; but no, ‘unprecedented’ it must be.

What of ‘curve-flattening’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘covidiot’ (people who flout the lockdown)? Of course, other language is used; but it is interesting how, during crises like the current one, there are always one or two words that are able to fight their way to the top of the pile and lord it over all others. A sure sign of a word’s ascendancy is when the Uber driver freely uses it.

 

Words made for a crisis

We have seen this before. Every crisis throws up its unique but ubiquitous terms: ‘collateral damage’ was much used in the Iraqi wars; ‘subprime’ and ‘CDOs’ (collateralised debt obligations) became almost household terms during the global financial crisis; and the widespread use in this country of ‘remoaners’ is a painful reminder of where we were just a few months ago!

Is there a sort of herd mentality, or even laziness, at play here? Or does the repetition of key words have a more subtle origin or implication? Should we accept and use these key terms as being helpful in allowing us all to make sense of the crisis – as they, by their repetition, gain credence and authority? After all, humans are generally affirmative and empathetic creatures who tend towards regular and familiar patterns or terms of reference. Is this just another manifestation of the same? One can mock it, but perhaps this really is part of the human way of coming to terms with a most trying period.

The terms ‘remoaners’ and ‘covidiots’ are slightly different in that they were coined to be catchy, by humorously juxtaposing two meanings. They are slick and pack a punch, which makes them attractive to use. Such words reflect the time and crisis from which they originate but tend to have a short shelf-life. It seems that every crisis, then, has its own language – its way of communicating what is happening through various widely used and accepted terms.

 

Our verdict

As wordsmiths, we at Copylab are generally encouraged to use the same word sparingly, recognising that there are a hundred ways to say the same thing, and that the audience generally appreciates variety. Are we antagonised by what we see and hear? Not exactly. One of the key considerations of writing or preparing to write is to know the audience. Terms used widely and repeatedly in mainstream media are utilised to connect with the audience and potentially elicit a response. ‘Unprecedented’ does just that. It is an evocative word that strangely profits from its overuse and familiarity. Without meaning to be too highbrow, what would not pass muster if regularly repeated in a fund report or an article on a specific aspect of the market, can and does work in mainstream media.

 

Post crisis

Where will these words be once the crisis is over? Probably on the scrapheap, along with ‘remoaners’. ‘Unprecedented’ will remain, of course, but hopefully we will see the back of ‘covidiot’. These terms will have served their purpose during the coronavirus but will be hopefully laid to rest alongside the virus itself.

Mike McNaught-Davis