If Kenneth Williams were still with us, I think I’d like him as our Prime Minister. At least when he said ridiculous things, he expected us to laugh at him. One of the things I have clocked during this lockdown is how it is influencing our use of language in rather a ridiculous or bizarre way. Some words, like “lockdown” itself even, or “quarantine“, or “pandemic” have stepped to the forefront of everyday language when they were formerly rarely used. In other cases, words have been put together in a new way to name the actions or situations new to us. “Self-isolate”, “shielding”, “social distancing” or “support bubble” come to mind.
Meanwhile, while I mused on this, the Prime Minister, as it turned out, was not “shielding“; instead he was partying in Downing Street and certainly not “social distancing“. Several times. Even the day before the Queen sat alone in Westminster Abbey, mourning the death of Prince Philip, following the prescriptions of our leaders, our leaders were ignoring their messages for us all to “self-isolate“, “shield” and practise “social distancing“. And then Boris lied about it to the House of Commons. This is something completely new to me in politics. How can he get away with it? A Prime Minister given a police conviction while in office who stays in post? That really is a new one to me, especially when you consider that in most civil service professions, like teaching for example, it would be termination of contract and instant dismissal if you had even the slightest little misdemeanor coming up on your enhanced annual criminal records’ check.
And I have learnt some new words too: “furlough” is an example. This word has been around since the early seventeenth century and comes from the Dutch word vorloffe, meaning permission literally, or “leave of absence,” especially in military use. It was also applied to conditional temporary releases of prisoners for the purpose of going to jobs (work-release). But with Covid, it acquired a new nuance with the government’s “furlough” scheme.
But actually, here’s another nuance from the times we live in: Brexit is making us suffer now and, along with the crisis in Ukraine, has seen us all taking leave of absence from being able to pay our bills and struggle with the cost of fuel, petrol and food. And thinking how the meaning of “furlough” morphed from military to pandemic, let’s consider how some words are now morphing their meanings to the levels that “Carry On” films made their name on.
Now, in the House of Commons, Tory MP Chris Pincher was doing his best to support our love of double meanings, or new meanings of words. Start with his name: who is he pinching? He was the Deputy Chief Whip: who was he whipping? He was caught in the Private Members Bar (let’s not go into privates and members – those double-entendres would be going too far) trying to grope other men. And after an unacceptable length of time, he resigned from his “position“, saying he had just had too much to drink. He hoped that he had prescribed his own punishment. But Boris withdrew his whip. Oo er, missus. Suspended him (oh please, not suspenders on the Deputy Chief Whip now). But only after leaving it long enough to make us all think that he would just accept this as acceptable behaviour from his Deputy Chief Whip. Words and phrases from the good old linguistic past make me want to go back to those un-pc good old days. The former MP Neil Parish recently resigned when he was caught watching pornography when he was meant to be sitting in the House of Commons taking part in debates. Interestingly, he was one of the first to condemn the Deputy Chief Whip. I mean, how many of us really would expect to get away with watching porn in a work meeting? Come to that, how many of us would actually do it? This is a radically new way of seeing our elected leaders. How many of us would expect him to have become an arbiter in condemning sleaze? This really is a new way of seeing things.
In some cases, words and phrases seem today reflect the new way of seeing things that Covid has brought about. I am thinking of the terms “non-essential retail“ and “keyworker“. In the first case, it seems like a slap in the face of the excessive materialism that is part of our everyday lives and media. And what about those people whose career is now defined as pointlessly needless? What must this do to their self-esteem when someone asks them what they do for a living and they must reply: “I am a non-essential retailer”? Compare these unfortunates to those whose vocations are not simply essential, they are the very key to our existence. Perhaps this is a new leveler of social inequality? It doesn’t matter how high class you may be as a purveyor of the finest quality luxury merchandise; you are still unnecessary now. So this means that Bertram Burnley, jewelers by royal appointment since 1825, is now completely superfluous, whereas Chelsea Noakes, who works down the Co-op at weekends, is pivotal to the very survival of our species.
I’d say that was Chelsea one, Burnley nil. Meanwhile, we are being led by sleaze-balls and liars. Interesting “positions“. Doubly so. Oo err, Missus.