This Time Last Year…
It’s hard to believe that a year ago Britain was focussed solely on its general election, with all eyes set upon our imminent departure from Europe. What could be worse, we asked ourselves over a pint in the pub, crowded around a barrel table and sharing a packet of crisps, than a government headed by Jeremy Corbyn and this Brexit debacle?
Ha. Oh hindsight, how you mock us.
What a simple time that now seems. How we long to return to those days, although ironically here we are again, with Brexit, facing one more go round. It’s like that dark, sticky mess embedded in the grooves of your shoe that you can never completely shake off. Clearly then, not everything has changed, though I think you’ll agree that–thanks to Covid–the world is, by and large, a very different place to the one we inhabited back in December 2019.
A New World and a New Word
It was in 2019 that I learned a new word. Prorogue. This gem, hitherto unknown (to me at least), suddenly flooded into my consciousness when Boris Johnson prorogued, or suspended, parliament in the autumn of 2019. Suddenly it was all anyone was talking about. On the face of it, this was to allow him to bring forward “an ambitious new legislative programme” though many saw it as a way to slip his Brexit plans through parliament without proper scrutiny.
Whatever the reason, always keen to expand my vocabulary, I set about thinking of ways to keep the word ‘prorogue’ alive. “I got prorogued from school, bruv, for back-sassing* the teacher.” Perhaps. Or maybe you prorogue disbelief every Sunday night as you immerse yourself in Philip Pullman’s fantastical His Dark Materials on BBC1? Were Ross and Rachel on a prorogation in Friends back in 1997, I wonder? Okay, so I’m not sure that prorogue and all its derivatives are going to become common parlance any time soon but I’m all for trying a lexical mash-up.
Unsurprisingly, given everything that has happened in 2020, this year too has delivered even more new vocabulary for us to play around with.
Not that any of these words need explanation, but technically furlough refers to an unpaid leave of absence (from the Dutch word verlof meaning…leave of absence). Since March 2020, we associate the word primarily with the government scheme to pay part of the wages for people whose workplaces have shut down due to Covid. But in the spirit of upcycling old words, my mum’s mind has been on furlough since her stroke, I guess. And is death not the ultimate furlough? (In my book, you can never have enough euphemisms for the uncomfortable subject of dying. I think I’m definitely going to work on this. Maybe it just needs a hashtag to really get going…)
I remember a time when lockdown was something only heard of in prison settings, thanks to unruly inmates running riot and then being locked into their cells for extended periods, as order was slowly restored. Now it’s endured by the public at large almost without batting an eyelid, going in and coming out of it once, twice and….well, sadly we’ll just have to wait and see how many more lockdowns are imposed upon us before the vaccination programme kicks in. Personally, I’m all for punting this word back to where it originally came from…D-wing, Cell Block H or thereabouts.
Before the “2-metre rule” was suddenly painted on pavements and marked in hazard-tape on shop floors throughout the land, social distance was simply not a thing. We all had a vague idea of our own personal space requirements, of course, and would routinely feel aggrieved when this was broken on the daily commute or by socially inept men at meet-ups, but that was just part and parcel of modern city living. Suddenly though, we can all visualise two metres.
Initially, at the start of the pandemic, racing round Asda for the last of the bread flour, it was described as two shopping trolleys. Exasperated, Piers Morgan on GMB spiced things up by telling people to visualise a dead relative between them if they couldn’t conceptualise what two metres really was. (Obviously his family are taller than mine.) Now, it’s become second nature, as if we all have inbuilt parking sensors to warn us when we are getting too close to the person in front.
And to highlight further just how embedded this idea of social distance has become to our new behaviours, Radio One’s Greg James has been running a campaign to highlight Britain’s newest catchphrase: “socially distanced of course”.
Social distance is a phrase that has made it into the Merriam-Webster dictionary so it looks like it’s here to stay (along with self-isolate too, BTW, and a plethora of other Covid-connected expressions).
Depending on your age, this word might once have triggered memories of David Vetter who became ‘the boy in the bubble’ when he was born in 1971 with an immunodeficiency disorder. He was kept alive for the next 12 years in a germ-free plastic bubble. If you are more of a Millennial, you may associate ‘bubble’ with a tea-based drink that has been springing up along our high streets, masquerading as a slushy. It is also slang for a joke and can be shorthand for bubble and squeak, the very British delicacy of refried cabbage, mashed potatoes and other leftovers.
But thanks to 2020, ‘bubble’ now has a much loftier tag. It is your support hub, your human lifeline in this Covid-riddled, socially distanced world. You can bubble with a partner who does not live with you. It links two households together, allowing for real, human contact when one more zoom meeting would have sent you careening over the edge.
‘Bubble’ even has its own page on the Gov.uk website encompassing support bubbles, childcare bubbles and now even a Christmas bubble. https://www.gov.uk/guidance/making-a-support-bubble-with-another-household
More New Words
Other phrases that have come into widespread use this year are ‘net zero’ and ‘superspreader’, along with moonshot (as in the government’s mass coronavirus testing programme that was supposed to release us from restrictions, but which never actually materialised on the promised scale). Don’t confuse this moonshot with porn’s money shot, though of course there are obvious similarities…
*Also added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 2020 is back-sass (as a verb or a noun if you want to give it a spin…meaning reply to/address someone impertinently). I also like OED’s bohemish (for when bohemian doesn’t sound alternative enough) and kitchenalia (your kitchen’s paraphernalia, presumably). Interestingly, skim-read (what you have all just done with this article) makes it into the OED this year too.
This Time Next Year…
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, part of the wonder of language is that it is far from static. See The Changing Nature of Language (December 2018’s blog post) for some more non-pandemic related examples. All I’m hoping now is that, as 2020 crashes out and a new year beckons, the words and phrases that become popular in 2021 will be a little more uplifting than those spawned over the last nine months. Brrap, as they say on the street these days…. I’m off to cotch in my crib and get crunk over Christmas. Language, eh?