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The Language of COVID-19

The London Interdisciplinary School
13 July 2020
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6 mins read

The language used to describe COVID-19 is fascinating and important. The rhetoric and metaphors politicians and others use in speaking about it betray attitudes and assumptions. The new words and phrases which have been coined as a result of the pandemic and its social consequences are also worth examining. We’ll begin by thinking about some words and phrases used in new ways as a result of this crisis. We’ll then focus on metaphors used to refer to Covid-19 in the light of a broader discussion of illness and its metaphors. 

Think about words or phrases that have been used extensively as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. What are the literal meanings of each? What are their connotations?

💡 Take a look this post from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)’s blog on the language of Corvid-19 and consider the following questions:
1. What were the original connotations of the terms ‘self-isolation’, ‘social distancing’?
2. How have their meanings changed in their current uses?
3. Is it accurate to think of individuals as ‘self’ isolating when others tell them they have to do this?
4. Why are so many people unhappy with the term ‘social distancing’ as a description of keeping a physical distance from other people?

💡 Now read this post from the same OED blog​ which looks at how different English-speaking countries are using language during the pandemic – for instance, in the UK, Canada and Australia we are using the word ‘lockdown’ for what in the US is being described as ‘shelter in place’. These terms clearly have different connotations.

COVID-19 and its metaphors

💡 Susan Sontag‘s insights into the metaphors used around illness provide a useful framework for thinking about the language of COVID-19. Sontag, who died in 2004, was an interdisciplinary thinker who in her work on illness drew on a combination of historical, cultural, literary, psychological, and philosophical sources. It is easy to get fixated on the scientific, sociological, medical, and epidemiological questions surrounding our current situation, but the humanities have much to contribute to the way we understand and react to this pandemic. If you haven’t heard of Susan Sontag before, this Wikipedia page should give you a sense of who she was. Like many polymaths, she didn’t fit neatly into discipline categories and didn’t feel constrained by them.

💡 Read this short essay by Paul Elie that uses some of Susan Sontag’s ideas and applies them to the situation with COVID-19. It provides a useful overview of the most important points she made in her lecture (which was later published as a long essay, and then as a book) ‘Illness as Metaphor’.

Paul Elie neatly summarizes the key argument that Sontag uses: ‘Sontag’s work suggests that metaphors of illness are malign in a double way: they cast opprobrium on sick people and they hinder the rational and scientific apprehension that is needed to contain disease and provide care for people. To treat illness as a metaphor is to avoid or delay or even thwart the treatment of literal illness.’ Notice that he also suggests that using the term ‘virus’ in a metaphorical way has led to a kind of complacency about real rather than metaphorical viruses. For a range of examples of such uses of language, read this short essay by Constanza Musu:.

💡 And, if you have time, listen to the audio of Susan Sontag’s lecture ‘Illness as Metaphor’​ (also linked below) on YouTube (1h 21mins) – although this is on YouTube, it is audio-only. This was recorded in 1977, but the audio quality is excellent, and Sontag is an eloquent and engaging speaker.

The wide-ranging lecture, which was also published in the New York Review of Books, was the basis of Sontag’s famous short book Illness as a Metaphor (1978). She was being treated for breast cancer when she wrote this lecture, though she did not make that known at the time. She later wrote a book about the metaphors used for AIDS, employing similar arguments to that new epidemic.

Sontag draws attention to the way language was used to imply moral failings in those who suffer from illness, particularly tuberculosis and cancer. There are startling parallels with the war imagery being widely used for COVID-19.

Take it further: think about the following questions:
– How does metaphorical speech differ from literal speech?
– What other metaphors apart from military ones have been used for COVID-19?
– Find three further examples of writers or speakers using metaphors to describe COVID-19 and various attempts to contain it. These need not be military metaphors. What does each of these imply about COVID-19?
– What light does Sontag’s discussion of the metaphors of illness shed on these uses of language?
– COVID-19 differs in many ways from both TB and cancer. How do the metaphors used for COVID-19 compare with those Sontag identifies for TB and cancer?

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