I don’t know about you but I’ve been finding a lot of comfort recently in words. In escaping to beloved locations in literature (Hogwarts via JK Rowling, Cornwall via Daphne du Maurier, naturally!) but more specifically in investigating the meanings of individual words. In etymology. In the history of words and where they come from, of what they used to mean and what they might mean now, and how they are shaping our lives in the world. (I’m sure there must be a long German word for the solace-of-etymology!) There’s something about the intellectual and scientific nature of this kind of enquiry that I’ve found to be very grounding recently (and distracting, in a productive way!).
Like all my other colleagues, I am teaching online, from home, and Trinity Term looks and feels rather different to our normal Oxford experience but I am trying to look for the positives in these changes and to make the most of opportunities to do new things with my students. Thankfully we have the technology to do classes by video-call and I can’t tell you how pleasing it was to ‘see’ all my students on my computer screen this afternoon. Sadly I can’t give them tea and biscuits as I normally would and my home webcam background is disappointingly devoid of dragons (for the time being!), but we are, as the college’s new social media hashtag puts it, #Univ_Apart_Together. As I told my students this afternoon, when I did my BA, I had a mobile phone the size of a brick and I didn’t even have a desktop computer, let alone a laptop with a webcam (I wrote my undergraduate and MA dissertations on a word processor that was basically a typewriter!!). So I am very grateful that I can ‘see’ my students, even if at a distance.
This term I am wrapping up two courses with my first years, Old English and Linguistics, and it struck me that one of the major changes that we are all coping with at the moment is the rapid change in our everyday language. Who could have imagined two or three months ago that our vocabularies would now be filled with coronavirus and covid19, that we’d be on lockdown, trying to flatten the curve, and that social distancing would be the new normal. And this unprecedented change in our language has been recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which recently announced an extra ‘update’ to their usual quarterly publication cycle. I was astonished and delighted to read about this rapid response from the OED lexicographers and I began to do some reading online about the developments in the English Language in the UK and around the world. Given that one of the topics that I have studied this year with my first years is language change, how it happens and why, I thought that it might be worth thinking about this topic further together and so I organised an optional class for my students on the topic. (Optional in whether they did the reading, attended the class, commented within the class; this is a sensitive subject and a difficult time for all of us, so I didn’t want to put any undue pressure on my students to engage with topics that they didn’t feel comfortable with).
I thought it would be worth sharing the materials that I used, in case others are thinking about teaching the same topic or for anyone else who is interested in learning more (and thanks to the lovely people on my various social media accounts who encouraged me to share these materials).
You can read the OED’s statement about the April 2020 update here. The full list of words added is available here. This includes new word entries (Covid-19, infodemic, RO, self-isolation), new sub entries (to flatten the curve), updated sub-entries (PPE, social recession ), and additions to unrevised entries (elbow bump, WFH).
Executive editor of the OED Bernadette Paton has written a fascinating article about the new entries here: ‘Social change and linguistic change: the language of Covid-19‘ (This article also discusses the vocabulary of other diseases, such as misleadingly named Spanish flu)
There is also this post on language change in World Englishes: ‘Circuit breakers, PPEs, and Veronica Buckets: World Englishes and Covid-19‘ (I was very interested in the variations, such as the use of shelter-in-place in the US and the concept of circuit-breakers in Singapore)
Finally, the OED linguists have done a corpus analysis of the language of the pandemic, which means that they have tracked the trends in language use by analysing billions of words of web-based news content. Naturally there has been a huge increase in the use of the terms coronavirus and Covid-19 but it was interesting to see that the trend in January/February was towards words which named and described the virus, and in March towards the social impact and medical response to the pandemic. You can read the article here.
One of the new terms in the OED is infodemic, a term which was coined during the SARS outbreak in 2003. It’s a portmanteau word, made up of information and epidemic, and is defined as follows in the OED:
A proliferation of diverse, often unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy, or event, which disseminates rapidly and uncontrollably through news, online, and social media, and is regarded as intensifying public speculation or anxiety.
This wasn’t a word that I’d come across myself over the last few weeks but it certainly gave a name to something that I had experienced! So when looking for additional reading for my students, I started with The Conversation, a website where the articles are written by academics and researchers. I chose two pieces for us to read and discuss:
Simon Horobin’s article ‘Stay alert, infodemic, Black Death: The fascinating origins of pandemic terms‘ (Simon Horobin is a medievalist and linguist here in Oxford, and I was especially interested to read about the medieval context here).
One of the things that I have personally found very uncomfortable is the ways in which the language of war has been used to describe the fight against the virus. I found Alexandre Christoyannopoulos’ article explained those feelings and the implications of that language: ‘Stop calling coronavirus pandemic a war‘ (This also lead me to an article in the New Yorker on what’s at stake in the coronavirus’s name, here, which had some interesting material on the World Health Organisation’s best practice guidance for naming a virus).
Happily my teaching today coincided with the publication of my colleague Jenni Nuttall’s new article on Gibberish, available here, so if you’d like more linguistic and etymological goodness, give it a read: On Gibberish
And this week the OED launched it’s new antedatings project so if you fancy a bit of linguistic detective work, pop over to their website and find out more here!
If you’ve read anything interesting about the language of coronavirus, please do drop me a line here or on twitter!
I’d like to just end with a line of Old English poetry that one of my students mentioned in the class this afternoon. It’s the refrain of the poem Deor:
þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg
It is usually translated: that passed away, and so may this. Which is a comforting thought in these difficult times.
Thank you for reading and I hope you are all keeping safe and well. And a huge thank you to my students at Univ for their excellent work so far this term, their patience with the new challenges we’re facing, and as ever, their enthusiasm and good cheer. The Current Situation would be much more difficult without them!