Corona Warspeak: The Language of Disease, Nostalgia and Militarism in COVID-19 Britain Part I

We are speaking, reading and writing about the Coronavirus crisis in new and rapidly changing ways. This is having a significant impact on our lives, on the way we think, on our values and morality, on how we are coming to reimagine ourselves as individuals, as a society, as a nation. Corona Warspeak intersects with British preoccupations with sacrifice, duty, honour, public service and, above all, militarism. Historian of ideas Dr Richard Morgan tells us more.

Corona Warspeak is a world of words, phrases, catchphrases, and taglines; a landscape of concepts, ideas, metaphors, and motifs; a panorama of signs and symbols, of images and themes, of plots and characters. It is an expanding universe of messages and meanings that shift and change as they appear across multiple digital and non-digital spaces. From social media to newspapers, dating apps to television, digital posters to radio reports, video chats to face to-face conversations, online government warnings to tannoy announcements at train stations, Corona Warspeak is now ubiquitous.

This new language has come into existence simultaneously with the pandemic and is accessible to all of us because we all move within it, produce it, reproduce it. We are its interlocutors, hosts and innovators. It is through us that, like a virus, it multiplies, mutates, and self-replicates. Corona Warspeak is not only informing the ways in which we speak about the coronavirus crisis, but influencing how we represent it, experience it and frame it. It is outlining the new realities of what one radio presenter recently described as ‘Our New COVID World’.

New worlds – and ‘Our New Covid World’ is surely new – are created in part by new forms of communication. Dystopian worlds encourage us to navigate new lexicons, wherein recurring adjectives, verbs, and nouns describe the fearful features of the future. At the end of his novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), Anthony Burgess included a glossary of Nadsat – the jargon of the story’s criminal youth – which compelled the reader to learn the argot of deviance on which the dystopian nature of the novel turns. It is telling that the dust jacket of the first edition depicts a sketch of Alex’s face, mouth open, emitting a bubble of the novel’s new speech: ‘Yarbles, bolshy great yarblockos to thee and thine’.

Indeed, think of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), of its ‘Victory Gin’ and ‘Telescreens’ and ‘One-Minute Hates’, of ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’, of the ‘Proles’, the ‘Party’ and ‘Big Brother’, of ‘INGSOC’ and ‘Airstrip One’, where things are ‘double good’ and ‘double-double good’, of ‘unpersons’ and ‘memory holes’, of the ‘Brotherhood’, of the ‘Thought Police’, of ‘thoughtcrime’, of ‘crimestop’, of ‘Room 101’. And think also of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), where its ‘Commanders’, ‘Handmaids’, and ‘Wives’ perform their sexual ‘Ceremonies’, where there are ‘Guardians’ and ‘Angels’, ‘Econopeople’ and ‘Econowives’, ‘Aunts’ and ‘Marthas’ and ‘Daughters’, where there are ‘Whirlwinds’ and ‘Chariots’ and ‘Behemoths’, where ‘Unwomen’ are sent to ‘the Colonies’, where ‘the Eyes’ keep watch for ‘the Mayday resistance’ whose members, when exposed, are executed at ‘Salvagings’ and ‘Particicutions’.

Not only in dystopian visions do we find a new language in play. In arguably the most visited fictional universe of the twenty-first century, that of Harry Potter, an invented register maps out the ‘Ministry of Magic’ that administrates the wizarding world, in which there are ‘Muggles’, ‘Half-Bloods’, ‘Mudbloods’, ‘Pure-Bloods’ and ‘House Elves’. Hereabouts ‘Parseltongue’ is spoken, ‘Expelliarmus’ meets ‘Avada Kedavra’, ‘Expecto Patronum’ fights off ‘Dementors’ and ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ is named, not being exempt from the Potter-Speak naming of things.

What these new worlds have in common is an intricate ecosystem of language specific to their particular socio-political and cultural universe. The words, concepts and ideas are interrelated and interferential, making the universe easily navigable, comprehensible, readable. Like a new city, it becomes more orientable with every new detail added in the making of its map. Or, like the night sky, whose constellations became more readable with every newly identified star, new worlds become newly traversable with every newly plotted piece of public discourse.

And it is exactly this practice of discourse plotting that I want to make of Corona Warspeak in ‘Our New Covid World’, where we ‘stay at home’, ‘social distance’, and ‘self-isolate’, where we ‘shelf-strip’ and ‘furlough’, where we ‘wash our hands’ and ‘clap for carers’, where there are ‘frontline heroes’ and ‘flouters’, where there is ‘PPE’ and the ‘Curve’ and the ‘Peak’, where there are now ‘essential journeys’ and ‘daily exercises’, where there are ‘hotspots’ and ‘epicentres’, ‘lockdowns’ and ‘red-zones’, where we attend ‘online hangouts’, go on ‘screenwalks’, and catch up at ‘after work digital drinks’, where there are ‘Corona parties’ and ‘dangerous gatherings’, where the new timeframe of reality is ‘BC/AC’ (Before Corona/After Corona), where we keep ‘2 metres apart’, where we are ‘all in this together’, where you can ‘do your bit’ in one great ‘national effort’, to ‘defeat the virus’, to ‘beat the virus’, to fight the ‘invisible enemy’, to win the ‘invisible war’, to ‘shield’ our ‘key workers’, where we hear of ‘new, dry, and persistent coughs’, of ‘underlying health conditions’, of ‘elbow pumping’, of ‘toilet roll shortages’, of ‘herd immunity’ and ‘super-spreaders’, of the ‘Covid Cabinet’, of ‘new lighthouse megalabs’, of ‘superlabs’, of the ‘Coronavirus Daily Update’, of the ‘daily death toll’, of ‘face-touching’ and ‘quarantine’, of ‘cases’ and ‘testing kits’, of ‘face masks’ and ‘face shields’, of ‘armies of contact tracers’, of ‘protective gloves’ and ‘hand sanitiser’, of ‘symptomatic’ and ‘asymptomatic’, of ‘rainbows’ and ‘care homes’ and the ‘second frontline’, of the ‘second peak’, of ‘virtual Easter services’, of ‘consecrating bread and wine online’.

For those reading this language at this moment in time, it will, because of its pervasiveness and frequency of use appear familiar. Yet to someone from the ‘BC’ world, from, say, the 20th March 2020, it would appear as far-fetched and other-worldly as the language of A Clockwork Orange, Nineteen Eighty-Four, A Handmaid’s Tale and Harry Potter. A ‘BC’ mind would understandably assume that Corona Warspeak would be the slang discourse of a soon-to-be-released Netflix dystopia – Our New Covid World or some such title – rather than the bread-and-butter language of contemporary reality.

As a society it would be pertinent to approach Corona Warspeak with the same disposition of mind as a parent photographing their infant child: with a burning desire to document its formative years before it is too late; to chronicle its growth and changing appearance while still young; to create a record of it becoming a permanent part of our life and of our future.

And given the British government has been so transparent about its ‘messaging’ (is this another name for propaganda?) during the crisis, about its intentional creation, relentless repetition, and public dissemination of values and social norms, it would be prudent to stay abreast of the language of the crisis, to keep track of it, to decode its messages, or otherwise be swallowed up by it, stop seeing it for what it is, stop reading between its lines.

Yet it is not only politicians and scientists and PR gurus who create, use and spread Corona Warspeak from inside the locked rooms of the state. It is not merely a top-down form of communication. There is no plotting and hand-rubbing conspiracy at work. Corona Warspeak moves from the bottom-up too, being created and written – often literally graffitied – across the landscape of modern Britain by members of the general public. Such grass-root activities as Captain Tom Moore’s ‘Walk for Heroes’, the graffitiing of ‘VICTORY TO THE NHS’murals, ‘stay at home’ window-rainbow making, and Thursday night ‘clapping for carers’ are all testament to Corona Warspeak’s popular character, to it being a living, breathing and evolving language that is being produced at the intersection of the state, society and the individual.

Speaking Corona Warspeak does not merely mean to speak, read and write certain words. It means to align oneself as a historical actor with the new realities of a critical historical moment. It is by speaking this new warring language that we can make sense of ‘Our New Covid World’s’ identities, values and morality, keep track of its developing conceptions of right and wrong, of its reframed notions of social and selfishness. To post on social media, for example, Day 25 of quarantine, so tough, but I’m staying at home so they can save lives. Thank you NHS Heroes!, is to publicly place oneself at the centre of the historical drama, to publicly align oneself with its dominant moral codes and to publicly declare one’s adherence to the duty of sacrifice so central to its unfolding.

The warring tone of Corona Warspeak should come as no great shock. British society was a fertile ground for a language to develop about the COVID-19 pandemic that was militaristic in nature. In ‘BC’ Britain we had the continuous ‘war on drugs’ and the never-ending ‘fight against crime’. There was the militarisation of national events, with prosthetic-legged veterans marching across the Wembley turf on Cup Final Day, and the armed forces parading around the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. You didn’t need to be in Royal Wootten Bassett on the centenary anniversary of Armistice Day (although I was) to witness just how enthusiastically British people indulge in militarised ceremonies and rituals that celebrate, in a sombre, knowing way, Britain’s warring past. As a nation we learned each year, in silence, that the ultimate sacrifice any Briton could possibly make is to die in a war for their country. And recall the two most popular British films of the past few ‘BC’ years – 1917 and Dunkirk – with their heroic representations of the two most important reference points in our vocabulary of militarised communication: WWI and WWII.

So why should we think of Corona Warspeak as anything at all new for a society already so fluent in the language of war? First, unlike the ‘war on the drugs’, the ‘invisible war’ against coronavirus is not meant as a metaphor, but as a literal statement about the lived reality of the nation. Second, contrary to ‘BC’ events like Armistice Day, the ‘invisible war’ does not glorify previous wars for giving us the present peace, but on the contrary, depicts a present war to which we are adjusting, a ‘new normal’ that has as its counterpoint the peacetime we previously enjoyed. Third, as I will explore, Corona Warspeak contains new concepts and terms that make fascinating additions to ‘BC’ Britain’s traditional warring vocabulary. Fourth, many of the militaristic concepts and phrases abound in ‘BC’ Britain are now at play in a new setting, being mapped onto new realities and, as a result are being transformed, taking on new meanings that set them apart from their traditional uses. Finally, it is without doubt that Corona Warspeak’s warring tone is unprecedented in range, unrelenting frequency and rapidity of development, far exceeding even the most patriotic outpourings of ‘BC’ Britain’s peacetime remembrances of war.

A friend recently remarked during a digital catch-up that ‘it really does feel like we’re at war’. To which aspect of which war were they referring? To the chemical weaponry of the Syrian War? To the ethnic cleansing of the Balkan Wars? To the machete massacres of the Rwandan Civil War? To the paranoid fear of nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War? They couldn’t be referring to the ‘general idea’ of war, because no such thing exists. Each war, while sharing some general similarities with others, has its specificities and unique character. To ignore these details and speak about ‘war’ in general is, frankly, to be insensitive, if not pure ignorant.

My friend was referring, of course, to an idea of 1940s Britain, to the shared adversity and the calm carrying-on of Blackout Britain’s Homefront. Just without the Luftwaffe flying overhead, without the dropping bombs, without the imminent threat of a fascist dictatorship intent on conquering us, without evacuations, without Dad’s Army, without rationing. It is true that the supermarket shelves were empty in the first weeks of the coronavirus crisis, when many people really could not get hold of eggs and pasta and lentils and toilet roll. But this was not a result of a real shortage, limiting the amount of shopping that could be done as was the case in 1940, but the consequence of ‘shelf-stripping’: too much shopping being done, too much money being spent, too much being bought in too short a time, too much consumption.

Why, with all the signs of war absent, would my friend frame their experience of the coronavirus crisis in the language of war? I remembered Susan Sontag’s observation in On Photography that many of the personal testaments of 9/11 by New Yorkers recalled feeling ‘like being in a movie’. Sontag puts this down to the general pervasiveness of moving images in our world, encouraging such a movie-like framing of one’s experiences, contrasting with those of pre-photographic generations, who often recounted the experience of crisis ‘as if it were a dream’. And, like Sontag, I think it is the general pervasiveness of Corona Warspeak that encourages my friend’s framing of their experience of the Coronavirus crisis as like that of living through a national war. It is not important whether or not we are actually at war, but how the language of the crisis – Corona Warspeak – makes real the possibility of framing the crisis as a war.

As an ‘invisible war’, a biological pandemic is transformed from an infection of a human population by a deadly virus, a virus that is identifiable, knowable, visible (the round, ball-shape with multiple protruding prongs accompanies almost all news reports) to an attack on a nation-state, on a way of life, on a culture, on a civilisation, on Britain itself, which must in turn organise itself in a state of total war to defend not only the lives of its citizens, but its very existence.


Look out for Part II of Richard’s article coming soon on S&C

Featured image by rev_neil from Pixabay.

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