The amorphous and fortunately relatively low-level feelings of claustrophobia, anxiety and loss that accompany the lockdown, for me at least, are resulting in minor irritations assuming greater significance than they merit. For those of us who have a tendency to be pedantic at the best of times – aggravated in my case by too much exposure to too many student essays over too many years – it is often the use and abuse of language that I find disproportionately irritating. Covid-19 is highly infectious and it isn’t just people it infects. At least where English is concerned, it has also infected language.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the way the word ‘shield’ has mysteriously mutated under the influence of Covid-19 from being a transitive verb to being an intransitive verb. Those who are ‘vulnerable – another word whose meaning has been virally affected and now refers to anyone over 70 – are constantly being instructed to ‘shield.’ Shield what? Shield whom? Shield themselves? Staying at home, dexterously wielding their front doors as their shields? The closest my dictionaries can get to finding anything resembling a usage of a word meaning ‘shield’ as an intransitive verb is the archaic ‘forfend’, as in ‘Heaven forfend!’ Precisely. This intransitive usage, adopted by the BBC and seemingly accepted without demur by everyone else, has become so commonplace that I fear that the Oxford Dictionary will have to bow to populist pressure and list ‘shield’ as an intransitive verb in its future editions.
I blame Dominic Cummings, the utterly indispensable sloganmeister who clearly runs the country from his control-centre behind the arras, when he isn’t breaking the rules in County Durham. Breaking rules has long been known to be his forte and the rules of grammar will be at the very bottom of the hierarchy of rules he has broken. But on the slogan front his reputed genius also appears to have been undermined by the virus. Whereas ‘Get Brexit Done!’ and ‘Take back Control!’ clearly struck a popular chord, even if both were vacuous and misleading, ‘Stay Alert!’ and ‘Control the virus!’ clearly don’t. Whereas the Brexit slogans invited contestation, these second-phase Coronavirus slogans merely invite bemusement and ridicule. Both have very rapidly become the subject of cartoons and memes, as exemplified by one doing the rounds at present: “So, it turns out the real reason they told us all to stay alert was to watch out for mad bastards with impaired vision tanking it down the A1.”
I suspect that most first year Political Science students would conclude that it isn’t a particularly good idea for a government to become the subject of widespread ridicule at a time of national crisis. Boris’s political persona as an amiable buffoon who could quote Latin served him well enough in winning a referendum and an election on the back of Cummings’ slogans. Forty or fifty thousand Covid-19 deaths later, neither looks that clever. There is usually a good reason why the clown doesn’t manage the circus.