Asked for his view on the current “war-time” language being used during the coronavirus pandemic, Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist, said that the rhetoric was justified to mobilise people. Medical workers have been described as being on the “front line” and the UN Secretary- General, Antonio Guterres, has warned warning of the biggest challenge since the Second World War, Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist, said that the rhetoric was justified to mobilise people.
Speaking from his office in self-isolation on March 28, the American linguist warned of scenarios that may “range from the installation of highly authoritarian brutal states all the way over to radical reconstruction of society and more humane terms concerned with human need and no private profit”.
The apprehensions regarding the disastrous consequences and possible repercussions of Covid19 have dominated scholarly discourse all over the world. Unprecedented changes have already begun to rock the social, political and economic fronts across the globe. But what will also not be spared is the linguistic domain.
Calamities, epidemics or pandemics have always left their mark in the field of language as voices spelling out anxiety, apprehension, grievances, grim facts and figures, side by side with those of hope, remedies and recoveries have spawned new words and expressions in keeping with the constantly volatile situation prevailing in all fields of human life and activities throughout the world.
The draconian march of Covid-9 has drastically cut short many lives and livelihoods, entailed fresh fears and frivolities and given birth to unforeseen circumstances, incidents and innovations which have not excluded the linguistic domain. The celebrated Merriam- Webster Dictionary has announced a special update of its free online edition by inducting about a dozen corona-related words within a very short span of time, breaking the previous record of AIDS-related entries.
Within a span of 34 days, it is unprecedented to have a number of words entered and defined in a dictionary from their hitherto hoary or non-existent status and that too, in a lexicon which cherishes and imbibes only durable words and phrases. The rapid response of conservative lexicographers is testament to the magnitude of the pandemic and also about the need for urgency in coping with the challenges thrown by the dreaded disease.
Coronavirus has introduced us to a host of new words or phrases, new usage of some existing words and recalling certain words from disuse or oblivion. We are now getting habituated to listening on a routine basis words and phrases like quarantine, lockdown, comorbidity, asymptomatic, social distancing, pandemic, community spread, herd immunity, containment zones, masks, sanitisers, PPE (personal protective equipment) thermal scanning, spike protein, ventilators and medicines like ant-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine or antiviral remdesivir that bring a new reality in our day-to-day life and consciousness.
Side-by-side we are also routinely coming in contact with words and phrases like work-from-home, fiscal package, cash benefit, migrant labourers, xenophobia in the backdrop of the pandemic which either creates occasions for such expressions and phrases to gain rapid currency or intensifies or aggravates situations that are instrumental for the wide circulation of these words. Despite being so small that they can’t be seen, pathogens that cause human diseases have affected the way human beings have lived for centuries.
Many infectious diseases have influenced how and where we live, our economies, our cultures and daily habits. And many of these habits continue to exist long after the diseases have been eliminated. The European bubonic plague or “Black Death” (1348-1350), identified by painful swollen lymph nodes and dark blotches on the skin, killed more than twenty million people which was about two-thirds of the entire population of Europe at that time.
It slowed urbanisation, industrial development and economic growth as people left cities and reverted to rural and agricultural life, (the present Covid-19 situation in India and elsewhere ominously resembles that postplague scenario in Europe). But, in England, the plague turned to be a blessing in disguise for the English language. Many among the elite classes, including the Latin-speaking clergy and Frenchspeaking aristocracy, died. But the hard-working English peasantry, who were more resilient to the disease, survived.
So did the English language. So the Black Death, which killed one million people in England, ironically saved the English language from its declining state in the homeland. As for new words, the 14th century French gave the English vocabulary specially two terms related to infectious diseases ~ contagion meaning ‘touching’ or ‘contact, and diseases from des (lack of) and ease (comfort).The word, epidemic, however came from the 16th century French though the origin of the word was in ancient Greek, involving ‘epi’, which meant ‘among’ or ‘upon’ and demos meaning ‘people’.
It was the spring of 1918. The manmade horrors of the First World War were finally coming to an end. At that very crucial time, the world was affected by a very deadly influenza which infected as much as 40 per cent of the global population over the next eighteen months. An estimated 20 to 50 million people died ~ more than the 17 million deathcounts in the First World War.
The pandemic stretched from the USA to Europe to the remote parts of Greenland and the Pacific Islands. President Woodrow Wilson of America was among its notable victims. In the fall of 1918, the flu turned serious and it came to be known as “Spanish Flu” or “Spanish Lady” which was actually named out of misunderstanding. As wartime censorship did not allow the media of most European countries to report flu cases, the media of neutral Spain freely reported such cases.
When one such report involving the King of Spain with a nasty nose hit the headlines, the world came to believe that Spain was the epicenter of the disease. But the Spanish people felt that the disease spread from France, so they called it “French Flu”. Many words and expressions commonly used in English have their roots in infectious diseases. One such phrase is ‘Typhoid Mary’ which is used for a person who may not have symptoms of an infectious disease but can transmit it to others.
In 1906 Mary Mallon, a cook, was the first healthy person identified in the USA as a carrier of the typhoid bacilli that causes typhoid fever, a deadly disease for the western world in the 19th century. When an outbreak of typhoid was traced in Oyster Bay and a path of outbreaks wherever Mary worked, she was put into isolation in New York where she stayed until she died nearly three decades later.
(To be concluded)
(The writer teaches English at a Govt-sponsored school, Sailendra Sircar Vidyalaya, Shyambazar, Kolkata. He is also a freelance contributor)