People love creating words ” in times of crisis it’s a â€œsickâ€ (in the good sense) way of pulling through.
From childhood, our â€œlinguistic life has been one willingly given over to language playâ€ (in the words of David Crystal). In fact, scientists have recently found learning new words can stimulate exactly those same pleasure circuits in our brain as sex, gambling, drugs and eating (the pleasure-associated region called the ventral striatum).
We’re leximaniacs at heart and, while the behaviour can occasionally seem dark, we can learn a thing or two by reflecting on those playful coinages that get us through â€œdickyâ€ times.
Tom, Dick and Miley: in the â€˜grippe’ of language play
In the past, hard times birthed playful rhymes. The 1930s Depression gave us playful reduplications based on Australian landmarks and towns ” â€œain’t no work in Bourkeâ€; â€œeverything’s wrong at Wollongongâ€; â€œthings are crook at Tallarookâ€.
Wherever we’re facing the possibility of being â€œdickyâ€ or â€œTom (and) Dickâ€ (rhyming slang for â€œsickâ€), we take comfort in language play. It’s one thing to feel â€œcrookâ€, but it’s another thing again to feel as â€œcrook as Rookwoodâ€ (a cemetery in Sydney) or to have a â€œwogâ€ (synonymous with â€œbugâ€, likely from â€œpollywogâ€, and unrelated to the Italian/Greek â€œwogâ€).
Remedies may be found in language’s abilities to translate sores into plasters, to paraphrase William Gouge’s 1631 sermon on the plague. New slang enables us to face our fears head-on ” just as when the Parisians began calling a late-18th century influenza â€œla grippeâ€ to reflect the â€œseizingâ€ effect it had on people. The word was subsequently taken up in British and American English.
In these times of COVID-19, there are the usual suspects: shortenings like â€œsannyâ€ (hand sanitizer) and â€œisoâ€ (isolation), abbreviations like BCV (before corona virus) and WFH (working from home), also compounds â€œcorona moanerâ€ (the whingers) and â€œzoombombingâ€ (the intrusion into a video conference).
Plenty of nouns have been â€œverbedâ€ too ” the toilet paper/pasta/tinned tomatoes have been â€œmagpiedâ€. Even rhyming slang has made a bit of a comeback with Miley Cyrus lending her name to the virus (already end-clipped to â€œthe Mileyâ€). Some combine more than one process ” â€œthe isodeskâ€ (or is that â€œthe isobarâ€) is where many of us are currently spending our days.
Slanguage in the coronaverse: what’s new?
What is interesting about COVID-lingo is the large number of creations that are blended expressions formed by combining two existing words. The new portmanteau then incorporates meaningful characteristics from both. Newly spawned â€œcoronialsâ€ (corona + millennials) has the predicted baby boom in late 2020 already covered.
â€œBlursdayâ€ has been around since at least 2007 but originally described the day spent hung over ” it’s now been pressed into service because no one knows what day of the week it is anymore. The official disease name itself, â€œCOVIDâ€, is somewhere between a blend and an acronym because it takes in vowels to make the abbreviation pronounceable (CO from corona, VI from virus and D from disease).
True, we’ve been doing this sort of thing for centuries ” â€œflushâ€ (flash + gush) dates from the 1500s. But it’s never been a terribly significant method of coinage. John Algeo’s study of neologisms over a 50-year period (1941″91) showed blends counting for only 5% of the new words. Tony Thorne’s impressive collection of over 100 COVID-related terms has around 34% blends, and the figure increases to more than 40% if we consider only slang.
Not only have blends become much more common, the nature of the mixing process has changed too. Rather than combining splinters of words, as in â€œcoronialsâ€, most of these corona-inspired mixes combine full words merged with parts of others. The â€œquarantiniâ€ keeps the word â€œquarantineâ€ intact and follows it with just a hint of â€œmartiniâ€ (and for that extra boost to the immune system you can rim the glass with vitamin C powder). Many of these have bubbled up over the past few weeks ” â€œlexitâ€ or â€œcovexitâ€ (the strategies around exiting lockdown and economic hardship), â€œcoronacationâ€ (working from home) and so on.
Humour: from the gallows to quarantimes
Humour emerges as a prevailing feature of these blends, even more so when the overlap is total. In â€œcovidiotâ€ (the one who ignores public health advice and probably hoards toilet paper), both â€œcovidâ€ and â€œidiotâ€ remain intact. There’s been a flourishing of these types of blend ” â€œcovideo partyâ€, â€œcoronapocalypseâ€, â€œcovidivorceâ€ to name just a few.
Clearly, there is a fair bit of dark comedy in the jokes and memes that abound on the internet, and in many of these coinages too ” compounds like â€œcoronacomaâ€ (for the period of shutdown, or that deliciously long quarantine sleep) and â€œboomer removerâ€ (used by younger generations for the devastation of the baby boomer demographic).
Callous, heartless, yes. But humour is often used as a means of coming to terms with the less happy aspects of our existence. People use the levity as a way of disarming anxiety and discomfort by downgrading what it is they cannot cope with.
Certainly, gallows humour has always featured large in hospital slang (diagnoses like GOK â€œGod only knowsâ€ and PFO â€œpissed and fell overâ€). For those who have to deal with dying and death every day, it is perhaps the only way to stay sane. COVID challenges us all to confront the biological limits of our own bodies ” and these days humour provides the much-needed societal safety valve.
So what will come of these creations? The vast majority will fall victim to â€œverbicideâ€, as slang expressions always do.