The Pandemic’s Effect on our Language

If you’re anything like me, then the only time prior to 2020 that you heard the word ‘furlough’ was when Piper Chapman got a weekend out of prison on Orange is the New Black. Her request for ‘furlough leave’ was granted so she could see her dying grandmother. The definition of ‘furlough’ is exactly this, a leave of absence, which can apply to a soldier, worker or prisoner.

The UK was hit with a new meaning of ‘furlough’ when the Covid-19 pandemic saw the introduction of the job retention scheme. Many of us benefitted (kind of) from having 80% of our wages paid by the government from March this year, colloquially this was known as ‘furlough’. I enjoy this word, and what I love even more is how, like many words in the English language, we ALWAYS turn nouns into verbs. Or as fellow geeks will refer to as ‘verbing’. This is a very British tradition in which we will simply add ‘ed’ to the end of nouns to change their word class. I know I was one of many to say ‘I’m furloughed’ just as I’d also say ‘I googled it’.

‘Furlough’ has been confirmed as one of many ‘words of the year’ in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) which has swayed from tradition for one year only in deciding multiple words of the year as opposed to typically having one. This is something which was celebrated by lexicographer Susie Dent as she added ‘just one word wouldn’t do the year justice’. Other words which have made the cut are ‘bushfires, lockdown, support bubble, circuit-breaker, WFH, Black Lives Matter’ and of course ‘covid-19’. The Collins Dictionary chose ‘lockdown’ as it’s word of 2020, with lexicographers documenting over 250,000 uses this year as opposed to just 4000 in 2019.

This year alone has been a perfect example of how powerful language is equipped and evolves to fit anything which life may throw at us. Our language can always adapt and is constantly evolving.

So, what are the main causes of new language or semantic shifts in language which already exists? Covid-19 has been one of the biggest influences on language this year, which saw the emergence of many hyphenated words, such as ‘face-mask, mask-wearing, key-worker, anti-vax’ and ‘face-covering’. In addition, covid-19 saw many of us non-specialist folks using very specialist language, like ‘ventilator, PPE’ and ‘the R number’. We also found new ways of working, initialism WFH (work from home) made it as one of the OED’s words of the year 2020!

Other things which contribute to language change and evolution are activist movements, social media trends and technology. This year saw many of us embracing the webcam on Zoom; the amount of online quizzes I participated in and never won is actually a joke. And can we also address Skype? This was your perfect opportunity Skype! WHERE WERE YOU? I heard many a time that Skype walked to Zoom could run and honestly, that made me laugh probably more than it should have.

2020 also saw American’s fighting back against systematic racism and police brutality with the BLM (another initialism) movement, which birthed so many new linguistic opportunities. Riots took place after the shocking killing of George Floyd and the equally heartbreaking murder of Breonna Taylor. Not to mention the hundreds of other black citizens and people of colour who’s lives have been taken away from them by the corrupt state. I particularly enjoy ‘ACAB and fuck-12’. Sticking with America, 2020 has seen a huge increase in term ‘conspiracy theory’ after Donald Trumps twitter tantrums, the covid-19 vaccine speculation and the lockdown measures here in the UK. I have read some very entertaining ones myself, I especially love the micro-chipping one; I’m sure the government are very interested in what Amanda from Barnsley is doing!

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2020/08/28: A participant holding a Black Lives Matter sign at the protest. A coalition of activists and organizations led by activist, poet, and organizer Selu gathered across New York City. The coalition of NYC-based activists and organizations participated on a march through NYC in solidarity with the Get Your Knee Off Our Necks Commitment March on Washington to amplify the movement against police brutality and racial injustice. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

I’m sure that despite the global pandemic, horrific death toll and worldwide recession, we have all been grateful for a break from the dreaded blended noun ‘Brexit’. Lexicographers at the OED have recorded an 80% fall in its use in 2020. However, I have a feeling this is all about to change in the new year when it all becomes real again. One pandemic at a time please!

One thought on “The Pandemic’s Effect on our Language

  1. Good read! Looks like without a pandemic the word of the year would probably have been a climate change beauty as Brexit is a local euro-prob. Euro-prob! Quite like that one!


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