Pinging back into action

It’s seven months since I last updated Wordability. It’s not been lack of desire. It’s just I haven’t got round to it. Life in Covid times seems busier than ever, even though there is no daily commute, nowhere to go, nobody to socialise with. For reasons which are not even close to apparent, my Covid experience has not opened up oceans of time which I can use to better myself.

But when an unforgettable new word came along, I was determined to find the time to mark it and hope that this can at least build some momentum for the rest of the year.

That word of course is Pingdemic. From nowhere to everywhere in the UK in the space of about two weeks, Pingdemic has become so ubiquitous that it has already lost its inverted commas, commonly used to signify a new coining or an odd word which is little understood.

For overseas readers who may be coping with just a pandemic and not the added layers of a pingdemic as well, a little explanation. The UK’s Covid app is designed to alert individuals when they have been in proximity for a length of time to someone who subsequently tests positive for Covid. The app takes little account of the circumstances of said proximity or the vaccinated status of the individuals involved, so its blunt solution is an automatic ‘stay at home’ order for anyone unlucky enough to be ‘pinged’.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking the importance of this tool, and statistics have shown that it has definitely saved lives. But the issue now is that it is forcing people to stay at home when the circumstances which precipitated the ping would have made contracting Covid unlikely, with their vaccine status layered on top making that less likely again. And there is currently no way to use testing to prove that you are in fact eligible for early release from the requirement to stay at home for 10 days. That is currently limited to certain jobs and won’t come into play widely until the middle of August.

So the result of all of this is that thousands of people are being contacted and ordered to stay at home. This means that the jobs they were meant to be going off to do are often being left undone as a result, leading to a lack of supplies in supermarkets, rubbish bins not being collected and police forces being depleted.

This then is the Pingdemic – basic services under severe stress because people cannot perform their jobs due to receiving a ping.

While the situation is dire and will get worse before it gets better, linguistically it’s the reverse. In fact, I think it is a serious candidate for word of the year lists in a few months time.

I think it works as a word because it is a clever play on the word pandemic, and succinctly gets across the sense of a rapidly growing problem which affects lots of people. It sounds very similar, which adds to the sense that this is a very clever coinage which can be easily adopted and understood by everybody. It neatly fills a genuine semantic gap. And while ‘pinged’ itself has always seemed quite an odd word, when merged with pandemic to create this word it seems to allow that absurdity to flourish a little bit more, evoking the growing craziness of the situation in the UK at the moment.

I will do my best to write more later this year – fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) a pingdemic does not stop me writing for Wordability. And it is likely that unexpected developments in a pandemic which is sadly far from over will spawn yet more new words which will rapidly take off.

There is no word of the year

As word of the year season has gathered pace, it is clear there is no consensus over which individual word should be chosen to represent the year which is, thankfully, nearly behind us.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Collins Dictionary choosing Lockdown to sum up 2020, but since then Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster have both selected Pandemic, while the Macquarie dictionary went for Doomscrolling, with Rona taking its Covid category.

It was always going to be difficult to choose a single word to define the year, so Oxford Dictionaries didn’t bother, instead selecting a panoply of different words and phrases as they felt that one single word could not sum up the year adequately. Their detailed report on the language of the year is a fascinating read, and when we look back on 2020, how certain new terms became everyday utterances for us will be one of the key things we remember.

But I did find myself wondering whether the Oxford approach was quite right. Though it is true that multiple words and phrases have gone from nowhere to become everyday, when I considered what my own word of the year might be, before any nominations came in, I was veering towards pandemic or coronavirus as the umbrella word, the word which precipitated all the others. One word to rule them all.

So it was interesting to see the data from the Global Language Monitor, which pulls together detailed analysis of global usage to see which words are used the most. And so it was no surprise that in terms of words used, Covid-19, Covid and Coronavirus were the most used, with other words tracking slightly behind. In fact, the data showed that only Work at Home and WHO were terms that were used more than these three, though MAGA sneaked into the top five to reflect the US Election.

I think what the above shows is that when we look back on 2020, words like Covid-19 and pandemic will be the ones which come to mind first, which cements to me that they are probably the words of the year above all the others, but the sheer volume of others words now in circulation means that all of those other terms need to be cited as well as a description of the year.

When I speculated on words of the year back in April, I said that it would be great if vaccine emerged instead of the other obvious contenders to sum up the year. That hasn’t happened, quite. But I like to think we can be optimistic that words like vaccine, recovery and party will be the word of the year nominations next year, and that the words which have formed our new normal this year can return to obscurity over the next 12 months.

Lockdown Leads the way

It’s been a seismic year and language has evolved at breakneck speed to help us keep up to date with it all. The emergence of particular words and phrases seems to have run at a much higher level than has recently been the case.

As the pandemic has proceeded, so we have found all manner of unaccustomed terms coming into our everyday usage so that we barely remember a time when social distancing and furlough were not things we said every day.

So as word of the year season dawns, it is of course no surprise that the words of the pandemic are dominating proceedings.

Collins Dictionary is first out of the blocks as usual, going with Lockdown as its choice. It points out that as well as increased usage, Lockdown has changed from its prison roots, so while it retains many of the restrictions associated with its origins, it now carries elements of public health policy, the good with the bad.

What I think is interesting about lockdown is the way that people have already been seeking not to use it. Clearly the negative associations which Collins have cited are playing too much in politicians’ minds, so they will do what they can to convince us that we are not in a lockdown when in fact we are. So instead parts of the UK are now being treated to a ‘firebreak’ or a ‘circuit breaker’, even the English restrictions are named as national restrictions rather than anything else, with the word lockdown not even appearing on official guidance.

We will see a number of other words of the year over the next few weeks – all will no doubt relate to Covid-19 in some form or other. What will be interesting to note will be whether some words have already run their course, and officials will be trying to replace them with something else in a way to make the message appear to be something different from what it truly is.

Doomscrolling through the Twindemic

Given how much the Coronavirus pandemic has dominated all aspects of our lives in 2020, it is hardly a surprise that it continues to be responsible for the majority of the new words and phrases which have emerged so far this year. Indeed, The Global Language Monitor’s recent analysis has shown how the pandemic has dominated language this year in a way that other events have not previously managed.

Wordability would probably exhaust itself if it tried to catalogue every neologism which has sprouted up across the world, so is instead contenting itself with occasional forays into those words which might have more longevity than just being the lastest buzzword in the Urban Dictionary.

There are three interesting words which have emerged in the last couple of months, all of which seem to neatly encapsulate different aspects of what the pandemic has done to the world.

MasksMost recent is Twindemic, coined in August as a neat way to sum up what we might be facing in the northern hemishpere if Coronavirus and the flu season present simultaenous peaks. At the moment, discussion of how to avoid such a scenario is rife in the media, even if it is unclear how this is to be avoided. But we are in for a rough ride if the term Twindemic moves from being the subject of speculative articles to a standard term on our front pages.

Of course, for people who can’t stop themselves hunting for bad news relating to Covid, this term will already be old hat. That is because they can’t stop themselves Doomscrolling. This word, or Doomsurfing as it is sometimes used, means the relentless scrolling for news about the pandemic, despite the realisation that this continued search for information is not actually good for you. News media around the globe reported massive boosts in traffic in the early part of the year, confirming the insatiable appetite for pandemic news and the number of people who must therefore have been doomscrolling to get it. If we do move into a Twindemic phase later this year, expect there to be more doomscrollers as a result.

Separate to all of this, as we settle into our new normal, is the question of what impact the sudden stop of human activity has had on the planet around us. We all enjoyed the sight of animals venturing into deserted towns and villages, with sheep on roundabouts proving particularly popular as viral videos.

But scientists have been able to use this time to study the long-term impact of the sudden loss of human activity, followed by its gradual re-emergence, and have dubbed this phase the Anthropause. It seems very likely that this term could have a very long lifespan, as studying the impact of this year on the wider world will prove a rich seam of research for many years.

As the year rolls on, it is a raging certainty that new words will continue to emerge to encapsulate the phases of the pandemic which we are yet to experience. However, it seems likely that these three will continue to gain some traction as they all describe aspects of the situation which are unlikely to go away any time soon.

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.

 

Word of the Year a Virtual Certainty

It’s only the beginning of April, so it is a little premature to decide on what will be crowned the word of the year this year. But it is a raging certainty that whatever global dictionary makers decide on, it will have something to do with Coronavirus.

The words which have now become everyday to us fall into two distinct categories – those which previously existed, but we rarely used, and those which are new and have been spawned by the current pandemic.

CoronavirusCoronavirus itself falls into the former category. Coronavirus as a catch-all term for a group of viruses, including the common cold, is technically the correct definition, but the ongoing outbreak has meant that Coronavirus is now being used as the term for this specific illness, and will be for all time. While people are familiar with the new term Covid-19, the official word for the disease caused by this particular coronavirus, we are living through the time of The Coronavirus and nuances of meaning around future coronaviruses are linguistic challenges for another day.

Other two key terms which have gone from nowhere straight into daily usage are Self-isolation, Social Distancing and Lockdown. Any could legitimately emerge at the end of the year as the term which has defined 2020. Allied to that is the word Virtual, which was much more common before this outbreak but is now appearing as a prefix to almost anything you can think of to describe a previous physical activity now being delivered by electronic means. Virtual reality no longer seems so virtual, and a revision of the word virtual at the end of all this to recognise its ubiquity may be upon us.

The key to much of this virtuality has been the technical tools available, and Zoom is a brand that is new to most people. It has currently gone clear of the pack in terms of being the online meeting tool which most people are relying on. However, the rise of Zoom has also spawned one of the best brand new words of recent times, Zoombombing, which is the practice of people hacking into online meetings hosted on Zoom to disrupt them, often with sinister overtones. Zoom have responded by making some urgent changes to their platform, so it will be interesting to see if Zoombombing becomes a historical word almost as quickly as it emerged.

The new word which will doubtless hang around longer is Covidiot, the term coined to describe anyone doing stupid things during the current outbreak, be that stockpiling toilet paper or ignoring official guidance over how to behave to avoid spreading the disease. Urban Dictionary is credited by many as the origin of the word, and it certainly looks like one which will not go away any time soon.

Any one of the words above could emerge as the defining word of the year. But wouldn’t it be great if it was none of them? Wouldn’t it be something if vaccine or cure could suddenly rise up as the key description of this year? Or something about how togetherness and community spirit end up as the enduring spirit of 2020? Optimistic I know in the current climate, but with plenty of people saying that they hope that the world that emerges from the pandemic is better than the one that went into it, then we may find that the most popular words over the next few months reflect a renewed sense of hope.