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.