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A language for the times
At some point in high school, we read ‘1984’, and were introduced to Orwell’s idea of Newspeak. Newspeak was the simplified language used as a means of social control in the fictional totalitarian superstate, Oceania, in which the story is set. Newspeak introduced me to the idea language can control thought. Without a word for a concept, or an action, or an object, it cannot exist in the collective psyche that language represents. Ever since, I’ve been curious about the connection between thought and language.
We have all had the experience of struggling to find words – to bring things out of ourselves and into the world where they can be seen and heard and understood. When we can’t find the words, we feel invisible; marginalised. And then we read or watch or hear something - a book or an article or a piece of music and it resonates – in it we see ourselves and someone else who gets it and who gets us. Maybe we share the article or the song, or adopt its clever turns of phrase. New words emerge out of necessity to express a shifting growing mass of human experiences.
Every year the Oxford English Dictionary adds new words and expressions to their collection reflecting changes in culture, technology and ideas. Typically, they have reached some level of prominence or ubiquity to be included. They read like a highlights album of social zeitgeists with recent inclusions like ‘social distancing’, ‘anti-vaxxer’ and ‘essential worker’, or ‘cancel culture’ and ‘virtue signalling’, and who could forget ‘me-too’ or ‘climate crisis’. I always find myself doing a double-take because it feels like we’ve had these words (and ideas) forever, like, what did we used to say? And the answer, with true Orwellian swagger, is we didn’t. Sometimes we’re just iterating… we used to say ‘climate change’ and before it, ‘global warming’. I think you’ll all agree ‘climate crisis’ has a little more oomph. Different times, different measures.
It’s an interesting time to reflect on ‘virality’ (a word we’ve been enjoying increasingly since 2000) with the helpful analogue of an actual virus. We’re not even at the 2-year mark with COVID-19 but it’s hard to remember the time before those spikey fuzzballs, floating invisibly among us plotting our demise.
That image was created by medical artists at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and it’s an important part of the brand. I can’t unsee it now and actually, I’m pretty sure it’s all over supermarket trolleys and public transport, handrails and other people generally. Thanks CDCP, keep drawing, you guys are great.
Once certain things come into our lives – a new technology, a person or a concept, it can quickly become difficult to imagine our lives without them. “How did we/you survive without…?” A question that leaves the old ones smug in their resilience and the young ones dazzled by antiquity. It’s a dumb question really, we survive or we don’t, and then we change and are changed by the times, same as we all will with whatever comes next to change everything all over again. The young ones become the old ones and the old ones turn into young ones, or cows, or dust, or angels or whatever ideas are currently en vogue.
Take it easy out there.