Posted by Penelope Lovesy at 25/06/2020 10:40:32
In the final part of our Lockdown Blog, Rebecca Rossiter, Public Programming and Learning Manager at Poole Museums, reflects on the language of lockdown and wonders whether we’ll ever look back at our new-found vocabulary with a sense of historical interest.
Q: Why do pirates have trouble learning the alphabet?
A: They always get stuck at C.
My four-year-old son is currently obsessed with pirates. For his birthday he dressed up as a pirate first thing in the morning and kept the outfit on until bath time. His cake was a pirate face, his presents were pirate themed. We even organised a family Zoom tea party for which the dress code was stripy tops and pirate hats. My father-in-law pushed the boat out (pardon the pun) with a handlebar moustache made from black duct tape – he looked truly menacing. Anyway, I digress. What I’d wanted to mention was that amidst this pirate mania, Ted’s vocabulary has now expanded to include all manor of nautical jargon. While playing the other day I overheard him saying “buccaneers”, “landlubbers”, “crow’s nest” and “join my crew or walk the plank!”
Language is a strange and powerful beast. At what point was it decided that a pirate talks in this way? Presumably Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has a lot to do with it, but at a certain moment in history, popular culture, myth, fiction and a peppering of ‘fact’ all mixed together to produce a common assumption that if you’re going to impersonate a pirate you’ve got to say “Arrr”. A lot.
Having been immersed in pirate-speak and also working hard with colleagues on plans for museum reopening, I’ve been thinking a lot about language. In what has turned out to be something of a logistical ‘challenge’ amidst an ever-changing, shifting landscape of regulations, I have had to give a lot of thought to the wording we will use in our signage, the messages we will need for visitors – the strange new vocabulary of the coronavirus pandemic and its legacy.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but a few months back I had never heard of or uttered the phrase ‘social distancing’. Yet is has suddenly become the norm to discuss a socially distanced picnic you attended at the weekend or a socially distanced stroll with a friend. I’m gradually getting used to social distancing in my everyday life although I’m not even sure if it makes grammatical sense. Is it a verb? Or an adverbial phrase? ‘I social distance / you social distance / we all social distance’? Somehow the odd juxtaposition of the two words still makes me feel uncomfortable – surely to be distant is not a very social thing to do?
Then there’s ‘shielding’ – a word not entirely out of place in a Marvel comic or film. I’m pretty sure Nick Fury has Agents of Shield if my now distant memories of seeing summer blockbusters at the cinema are correct. And perhaps superhero undertones are indeed fitting for the valiant effort made by the many vulnerable people who have been staying at home all this time to try and keep themselves safe. Can they now start to lower their shields and venture out? What would Nick and his team advise?
A couple of weeks ago my son was able to start attending the local nursery again. I was informed in the re-orientation pack that he would be kept in a ‘bubble’. It turned out that a bubble is another name for a small social group but for some reason, since living in this strange new world, the group is now known as a bubble. If anyone from his bubble becomes unwell, or their families and carers become unwell, then we’ll be getting a call and asked to ‘self-isolate’ (there’s another of these odd phrases) for two weeks. So it’s a pretty fragile bubble really and our temporary bubble of home-working calm could easily burst at any moment.
This week I heard another one. The government announced that we may have travel ‘corridors’ with certain approved countries for limited quarantine-free air travel between nations. Why corridors? Surely if we had those we wouldn’t need to catch an aeroplane, we could just walk down the corridor. Somebody somewhere is getting paid a lot of money to come up with this bizarre redefining of language.
Perhaps I am over-thinking it all. Perhaps language has always played a similar role in a global crisis; I’ve just never had the misfortune of living through one before. During World War II, ‘blackouts’, ‘air-raids’ and ‘rationing’ would have become a way of life. These are the phrases we commonly associate with that time and the often life-threatening challenges that went with them. Language is an ever-evolving creature – words and phrases emerge, disappear and metamorphose constantly. I remember loving the phrase ‘mouse potato’ when it was announced it had made its way into the English dictionary (if you’ve never come across it, it refers to someone who is often glued to a computer in much the same way as a couch potato can usually be found binge-watching TV). Mouse potato, what a great phrase. But now it is so last century and even admitting that I know its meaning seriously ages me.
Expressions, time and history-in-the-making are always in flux, much like our everyday lives at the moment. But one of the reasons I am least keen on the coronavirus-related vocabulary is that, for me, it attempts to normalise what I do not consider my sense of normality to be. Deep down, I don’t really want to social distance, self-isolate or put my child in a bubble. But hopefully it won’t be forever. And all that said, I’m sure in years to come I too will reminisce to the grandchildren and tell them “Back in the pandemic days we all had to socially distance and self-isolate while your great grandpa was shielding – you youngsters don’t know you were born,” or something needlessly stereotypical like that. They, no doubt, will not even look up from their phones / inbuilt eye-chip devices and grunt. Yes, language is a strange and powerful beast.
Thank you to everyone who has read this blog and encouraged me with their positive feedback and comments. It’s been an absolute pleasure to write and I’ve enjoyed sharing my own experience of lockdown with our online audience. Now it’s time for me to focus on the museums’ reopening plans and how we will shape our services going forward. If, in the meantime, you would like to get in touch please do: firstname.lastname@example.org