Lost for Words

Lost for words

I love language – old words, new words, words that sound quirky or reflect their own meaning as you pronounce them. Writers can spend many happy hours playing with language to get just the right meaning and rhythm and flow. Yet it is an ever-changing medium as anyone who has read Chaucer or Shakespeare or any of the great classics will tell you. 

One of my favourite Christmas presents was a book called Forgotten English. You may have heard of Balderdash or Wassail, although both have now passed out of common speech, but have you ever needed to get your tongue around the words, Bibulous, Mumpsimus or Lenten-faced? (A prize for anyone who knows the meanings of these three words let alone can say them!) Treasure the words you use today and use them with care, because in a few decades they may slip away to be replaced by vocabulary we cannot even dream of.

Yet a year ago, we were all lost for words, not just in our attempts to understand the emerging situation, but also because the words to make sense of it didn’t exist. One year on, we have increased our vocabulary so much that terms such as self-isolating, lockdown and pandemic are part of everyday speech. How many of us knew what furlough meant in March 2020, or key-worker or still considered that those who worked from home were having a day off? We’re even confident with the medical terms such as asymptomatic, PPE and lateral flow test. And it isn’t only words that have entered our vocabulary, we also have the slick little phrases designed to influence our behaviour such as Hands Face Space and Eat out to Help out.

There’s a deep-seated need to articulate our worries about the biggest health crisis we have seen in generations and in the absence of regular social contact, shared talk is essential. Perhaps one of the biggest factors in the spread of coronavirus terminology is the fact that we are more digitally connected than ever before. The scale of our online communication in 2021 gives us far more opportunities to coin a new term and share it. 

Within a year, coronavirus has changed our way of living and we have needed new vocabulary as a kind of essential shorthand for talking about Covid-related issues – from the impact the virus has had on our working lives, to the influence of the lockdown measures. The quick release of vocabulary, metaphors and trip-off-the-tongue phrases point to the fact that linguistic creativity is a key part of language. It’s even a way to poke fun and laugh at the world around us. The comedians and cartoonists are quick to raise a smile with their take on anything from mask-wearing to the state of our hair during lockdown. My favourite cartoon was a masked, green-faced virus hurrying nervously past an unmasked Donald Trump.

Will the new vocabulary survive? Historians will need it to analyse our behaviour during this period, scientists to develop preventative medicines and the rest of us to look back and remember. As things stand, we seem unable to escape the endless Covid conversations. They sneak into every video call as we speculate about new strains and vaccine production and which holiday destinations will be on the green list. 

What a relief it will be when Covid 19 is no longer at the forefront of our minds – but what on earth will we talk about when it finally goes away?

Forgotten English is by Jeffrey Kacirk published by Quill

Walking Apart, Walking Alone, Holding On Letting Go, Moving Pictures by Catherine Finch

Available from Amazon, Clitheroe Books and from the shop page.


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