The outbreak of coronavirus has led to loaded phrases, a rash of cliches and weary metaphors. This contamination of our speech is isolating meaning, destroying semantics and, worse still, trivialising the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Hot on the heels of the coronavirus infection has come the infection of our language. Covid-19 will pass. The other disease may be more permanent. Within not days but minutes – even seconds – this potentially more long-lasting infection of our speech passed from politicians to reporters to the people. Few of us now question the loaded phrases, the old cliches put to new use, the tired metaphors and the weary references to war and frontlines – even, inevitably I suppose, to the Second World War.
If we “self-isolate”, I suspect we are not just closing our front doors. We are also isolating meaning, destroying semantics, misusing our language, mixing cliché with weary metaphor. It won’t make the virus go away, but it will self-isolate the words we speak. Perhaps for a long time. And be sure, there will be more of them.
I’m tempted, of course, to start with the literally morbid “herd immunity”. But let’s start with Boris Johnson’s first cowardly introduction to the idea that old people will die more quickly than young people. You might think that a mature, adult prime minister would treat his people to the realities of death. Death, after all, is what makes coronavirus so frightening. If it constituted only a mild, non-lethal but more than unusually unpleasant flu, we wouldn’t be – most of us, that is – hiding at home in fear.