The Precedence of the Unprecedented
This year has truly been a period of history in the making. An incredible amount of change in one year. A year of uprooting, unsettlement and upheaval. If anyone had predicted that 2020 would look like this in January, I do not think many of us would have believed them.
Our language reflects the vastness of change on this scale. The Oxford English Dictionary even adapted its traditions of naming a ‘word of the year’ accordingly. Announcing that they thought it impossible to name 1 single word that reflects or encompasses the essence of 2020, they instead opted to report more expansively on the “phenomenal breadth of language change and development”. Another unprecedented decision. This report, entitled ‘Words of an Unprecedented Year’, analyses the story of 2020 through lexicography.
In almost real-time, we have been able to track changes to language. How many of us are now hearing ourselves and each other use words we never used before? It’s noticeable because of how rapidly language has developed. Specialist epidemiological and medical vocabulary entered our everyday lexicon, for example ‘R number’ and ‘community transmission’. Terms like ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’ surged in frequency over April. Words like ‘bubble’, ‘tier’, ‘distance’ and ‘remote’ have taken on a whole new meaning and importance, experiencing a huge rise in their everyday use. As a technology start-up, many of the words we use at Mirthy also have a different meaning in this context: we offer a ‘platform’ of public speaking events for our speakers to ‘host’ virtual ‘audiences’. All these words take on new meanings within the world of online ‘reality’ and virtual events.
Technology and our modern-day globalized context are perhaps the architects of such an ‘unprecedented’ situation. Whereas we have had pandemics and epidemics before, we have never had the technology we have now. Without the internet, changes in language across the English-speaking world would not have happened so quickly or on the scale that it has. For example, the more casual ‘rona’, first used in Australia and the US has also seen an increasing use in the UK. The world remains connected despite the feeling of disconnect. Language tells that story of a connected world and global experience.
And despite the term ‘unprecedented’ being the most popular adjective to describe this year, we are still connected to our past through the precedence of this human experience. The cycling of cultural and historical phrases and references throughout this ‘unprecedented’ period suggests that there is a precedence for the events of this year after all. As one of our speakers Sandy Leong likes to point out: “History repeats”.
The story of the Derbyshire village of Eyam is a historical case study with ‘powerful echoes’ relevant to the Coronavirus crisis. Despite “social distancing” being a term that most of us had never heard of before March 2020, during the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665-6, the villagers of Eyam recognised the importance of keeping apart from others and quarantined themselves. This self-imposed isolation contained the plague to their village, a sacrifice that prevented the disease from spreading. Although they didn’t use the term ‘social distancing’, which only emerged at the beginning of the 21st century in the specific sense of maintaining a distance from others to reduce infection, Eyam shows a precedence for taking actions to protect others.
There have also been many comparisons drawn between the Spanish flu 1918 and Covid-19. Although never before has the world been so globally connected through travel, the end of the war and soldier mobilization in 1918 created a situation in which a virus could be passed as soldiers returned home from trenches and deserts all around the world.
A present of precedence
So although this situation is ‘unprecedented’ in our modern times, there is some precedence for what we are experiencing. Which can be somewhat reassuring in many ways, especially as we are more equipped now to deal with a pandemic, shown by the speed with which scientists have been able to create a vaccine. This is an exceptional situation for our own lived experience but our language can draw parallels in history. We are able to express what is happening through words we developed from previous plagues and pandemics.
This period over Christmas will indeed be a strange one. But there have been the ‘strangest of Christmases’ before, both personally, nationally and globally.
We wish you a holiday season of innovation and surprises, as we explore new ways to connect and communicate. We hope that you experience a different type of joy this Christmas: whether someone reaching out you haven’t spoken to in a long time, a beautiful sunrise or sunset, rediscovering some old photos you forgot you had.
This ‘winter of discontent’ will pass, just as the ones that came before did too.
If you need more support this Christmas, reach out to family, friends, and neighbours. And check out our 5 top tips for staying connected this Christmas.
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