The Language Trap

Human vocabulary is constantly evolving, incorporating new terms and definitions to describe novel ideas, innovations, and phenomena. These neologisms, as they’re called, imprint on our brains such that not only the words but the concepts behind them become familiar. From culture to technology, science to politics, each year, hundreds of new words are added to the dictionary.

This can be positive (unplug, cybersafety), funny (detectorist, vulture capitalism), or pathetic (xoxo, peoplekind). It can also be sneakily dangerous.

The coronavirus pandemic has wrought far-reaching havoc. In English, Hebrew, and the local tongue of every corner of the globe touched by the virus, governmental measures have birthed words and notions heretofore unknown: Contact-tracing. Social distancing. Super-spreaders. Stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders. (All these can now be found in dictionaries.) And the most sinister covid-ism of all: Lockdown.

Less than a year ago, we’d never even heard of such a thing. If you’d asked me what lockdown meant, I would have guessed it had to do with boxing. Today, we not only know what the word means, but almost nobody flinches when they hear it. Confining healthy human beings to their homes or immediate vicinities; shuttering schools, workplaces, and local businesses; separating families – including newborn babies from their mothers; preventing free movement within communities and towns – all this has become normal, regular, devoid of shock value. Lockdown (seger in Hebrew) is now a thing. A destructive, damaging, outrageous, tyrannical, short-sighted, feckless thing. It rolls off the tongue like the names of our children.

I for one can’t bring myself to use the word. Speaking it lends legitimacy and normalcy to something that is neither legitimate nor normal. Words have power:  the power to hurt, as we are in the midst of reflecting upon this time of year, the power to inspire, the power to change minds. I refuse to invest power in an expression of evil.

Yes, evil. This latest seger is purportedly based on “the numbers,” those runaway figures which are themselves the product of linguistic sabotage. Cases, patients – words traditionally used to classify sick people confined to the hospital – are for the first time in medical history being used to describe findings of virus particles (dead or alive, we can’t know) on swab sticks, many taken from more or less healthy individuals. Fatalities, morbidities – words that send fear up our spines – are stretched to include those who incidentally test positive before passing away from other causes.  Meanwhile, the well-being of individuals with serious non-corona health concerns is left by the wayside.

And we all pay the price. When the dust settles, the citizens of this country, like so many others, will find themselves in a world less free, less honest, and very sick indeed.

About the Author
Ziona Greenwald, J.D., is a contributing editor for The Jewish Press and a freelance writer and editor. Her second children's book, Tzippi Inside/Out, will be published soon by Targum Press. She feels grateful to be living with her husband and children in Jerusalem.
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