There have been many victims of the Covid-19 crisis. Those who have died, those who contracted long term health conditions as a result of infection and those who fear infection are the most obvious and we mourn them and sympathise.
But there are other victims.
Truth, the ability to comprehend what ‘science’ is and why ‘the science’ is never as clear cut as politicians and some journalists would have you believe, and language itself.
Precision in language has been bludgeoned over the years by many trends, and I am not an advocate of strict adherence to theoretical concepts forged in the enthusiasm of Enlightenment. That was itself an oddity, the last thing les Philosophes advocated was enthusiasm; that led to religious fervour, suppression of enquiry and the propagation of lies. But there were enthusiasts who taking one bit of the central concept of Enlightenment wanted to describe, explain and classify everything, including words and grammar.
Explaining what an infinitive was, how one could split it in English whereas one couldn’t in Latin was fine. Forbidding the use of the split infinitive for no reason other than taxonomic convenience was pedantic, stupid and unimaginative. The mission to go boldly, or to boldly go? Which captures the spirit of the idea better? Hint; not the ‘correct’ one.
So change in language is not to be feared, where it works to enhance the main purpose of the tool, i.e. communication.
What concerns me however, is when self serving types; management gurus, HR drones, politicians, take good solid linguistic meaning and torture it to serve their own nefarious ends.
Covid has shown how, in Britain at least, we are in the hands those who believe hyperbole will kill the virus if science can’t.
We weren’t just promised an effective test, track and trace system, oh no! It was a World Beating! test, track and trace system. That it failed its trials and had to be replaced with a bowdlerised version of one the rest the (un)beaten world was using was just a blip, because the new one was going to be a world beater too! Unfortunately it is getting worse in performance, not better and nothing has been beaten except our belief in anything politicians say.
This may not seem too bad, a bit of bumptious enthusiasm to jolly the troops along perhaps, but it undermines everything when we have continual use of superlatives. If this mediocre shambles is World Beating, where can we go from here?
There has been significant mumbling and grumbling about the latest dead rabbit to be pulled from the hat; the Three Tier System (I wondered if someone had been reading about Turnip Townshend and the three field crop rotation system the night before the meeting about this). Most of this has been about it going too far or not far enough. We’ll leave the erosion of science for now, but no-one has mentioned the oddity of the naming scheme for this ‘system’.
In a paean of praise to oversize drinks vending everywhere, we start not with ‘low’ risk but with ‘Medium’ progressing via ‘High’ to ‘Very High’.
What happened to ‘low’?
Now we may not have any ‘low’ risk areas at the moment (although definitions are notable by their absence or confusion) but you can’t start at ‘Medium’. Medium, by its nature, by its Latin root, by standard usage and understanding, means ‘middle’. We have taken a marketing ploy and used it to try and tweak expectations, to ‘nudge’ behaviour. That is the kindest interpretation. There are others. Whatever the reason for it, this attitude to language, which has been growing exponentially (another favourite du jour) since digital media, erodes accountability. The authors of ‘World Beating’ no more expect to be challenged about it than they do to deliver it. Nobody seems to even be concerned that we have been elevated to a state of perpetual middle risk as a norm. Language is not a neutral thing, it is important and we should beware the erosion of precise meanings in the circumstances we now find ourselves.
The problem is as, Lewis Carroll put it so eloquently:
“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’”