Bubbling Under the Surface

It’s not often that a well-established word gets a whole new burst of semantic life, but the latest changes in Coronavirus guidance in the UK have done that for the humble bubble.

From now, groups in the UK can introduce one other individual into their Social Bubble, according to certain criteria.

BubbleThere are two things to consider here. The first is the choice of the word ‘bubble’ as a term for a self-contained social entity. This seems to be an extension of the idea of a Bubble as a protected group.  Cambridge Dictionaries Online provides a helpful definition which supports this:

Bubble (Protected Life) – A situation in which you only experience things that you expect or find easy to deal with, for example opinions you agree with, or people who are similar to you:
The candidate liked to talk to ordinary people to get a fix on what was happening outside his bubble.

It still strikes me that bubble was not the ideal choice of word. To me, something more everyday like group or circle would have been a little more appropriate. Bubble in the sense above carries a slight sense of unwillingness to engage with others, being happy inside your own world view and not that interested in the thoughts of others. In a situation where we are all desperate to get out of our lockdown routine and see more people, using language to subliminally reinforce the sense that we are all stuck in bubbles is a little unhelpful.

More interesting from a linguistic point of view is that the verb form of Bubble has gained a whole new meaning. To Bubble is now being used to mean the act of adding someone to your social group – I am going to bubble with my Mum, or We are bubbling up with Mr Jones.

While we are very familiar with the idea of new words being formed to encapsulate new and previously unseen ideas or activities, seeing an old word learn new tricks is a little bit different. Expect to see the definition of bubble being officially lengthened in the near future.

Or to use the modern parlance, expect Bubble to bubble its definition by one new member.