Lockstalgia | Daily News


I don’t think I will ever get used to the ‘new normal.’ Each time I venture out into the city and see everyone around me with their nose and mouth covered in rectangles of various colours, black, white, blue, orange and batik, I get this eerie feeling an alien species has invaded planet earth. In my mind’s eye, this species looks exactly like human beings except for their nose and mouth. Hence, the masks to cover themselves up, so that no one suspects they are, in truth, a group of aliens on a mission to conquer earth. Everywhere I look I see them and I shudder imagining what I might expect if I were to lift those masks.

Phew! Having a hyper-active imagination makes it that much harder to get used to post-lock down life, especially in Colombo where mask-wearers are in abundance as compared to distant towns like Thalawakelle. When this is all over, I am going to smile with everyone I meet, friend, foe or stranger at the supermarket, the bus-stand, the bookshop, the post-office because to just see their entire face would be cause for celebration. Until then, I will stay indoors as much as possible and mule over all the other things I would do when this is all over.

I would spend more time at the library. Eat as many curries as I can with turmeric so that my plate would look like the yellow moon on a poya day. I will also take stock of all the words that have taken on a new meaning in our lives since April, 2020, as well as those that are brand new.

To think that before the early months of this year, quarantine was a word we found in Famous Five books where George’s parents, Quentin and Fanny are almost always trapped at home due to some infection or another, and the four kids and dog are sent off on their own to many adventures on lonely islands. Masks until recently were horrible faces with evil grins made of wood in the city of Ambalangoda or those that adorned the faces of traditional dancers in ‘thovil’ ceremonies.

The expression “social distancing”, something we heard on a daily basis not so long ago and have now sadly forgotten, was once upon a time a piece of academic jargon that rarely reached the ears of mere mortals(although the World Health Organization prefers “physical distancing”). Other words – in particular those to do with epidemiology – that we have never heard of till now but which have now become a part of our everyday vocabulary are ‘Herd Immunity’ and ‘Furlough’ (a military word, often used when a soldier goes away on leave).

When the days blend into each other and you are feeling ‘coronalusional’ not knowing whether it is Monday or Thursday instead of trying too hard to remember, you may call it ‘Blursday,’ and easily get away with it because no one else will know either, they will all be busy staying at home and drinking ‘Quarantinini’ (a concoction of Vitamin D, orange juice and vodka seen as an immune-building drink in the US). While our neighbouring countries are still in the clutches of Miss Rona alias ‘Miley Cyrus’ we must thank our stars we have reached a Loxit(exiting from lockdown) and let’s keep praying it will last.

However, judging by the sad state of things in Myanmar right now, we are not out of the woods yet. So, if you see a ‘Covidiot’ or a ‘Morona’ who has his mask dangling from one ear or lowered to his chin, who does not keep a hundred meter distance tell him to use a ‘sanny’ (sanitizer) and go into ‘iso’ (isolation). Also do keep in mind to never be caught “Doomscrolling” by obsessively consuming depressing pandemic news. While you are at it, be nice and avoid “zoombing’ too(hijacking a Zoom video call). Do as much WFH as possible and take care of your ‘upperwear’ lest your boss sees you in that ancient T-shirt which deserves a place in a museum. But in case you receive an invitation, consult an expert about dress-etiquette for a covideoparty.

Linguists feel these new words have come to be a utilitarian shorthand for talking about corona virus-related issues – from the impact the virus has had on our lives as we started to WFH (Working From Home) for the first time, to the influence of the lockdown measures – or even just a way to poke fun and laugh at the world around us. The outpouring of metaphors, neologisms and lexical innovations we have seen in the past few months points to the fact that linguistic creativity is a key part of language, reshaping our ways of engaging with the world.

According to Ronald Carter, former Professor of modern English language at the University of Nottingham, the new vocabulary is not just ornamental but practical too. He points out that, “verbal play is often undertaken for humorous purposes, serving in part to bring people closer together”, as well as challenging the “normal” view of things. These words help people articulate their worries about the biggest health crisis we have seen in generations. It brings people together around a set of collective cultural reference points and can be seen as a kind of lexical “social glue”. The months gone by was a great example of how, in the absence of regular social contact, shared talk via social media became an important part of helping people feel connected to one another.

While the scope of lexical innovation in relation to corona virus is unprecedented, we only need to look to other periods of history to see how such linguistic creativity manifests itself in times of serious social crisis.

The two World Wars, for instance, gave the English language words like ‘Blah’ (Meaningless talk) and Bob (as in Bob-cut to describe the radical hair-style of women in the early 20th century), ‘welfare’ and ‘lifespan.’ When we go way back in time to the Middle Ages we realize fast spreading infectious diseases were called a ‘plague’ and later plagues of the 17th century led to the coining of the word ‘epidemic’. This came from a Greek word meaning “prevalent”, from epi “upon” and demos “people”. The more severe ‘pandemic’ is so called because it affects everyone (from Greek pan “all”).

A more recent coinage, ‘infodemic’,’ a blend of info and epidemic, was introduced in 2003 to refer to the deluge of misinformation and fake news that accompanied the outbreak of SARS (an acronym formed from the initial letters of “severe acute respiratory syndrome”).

Among the words added to the OED this April, in an unscheduled update, included ‘infodemic’ and ‘elbow bump’. But, according to Fiona McPherson, the senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the only actual new word added to the dictionary is ‘Covid-19’. The others are per-existing terms, she says, that had gained new resonance at a time when many people were subjected to stay at home orders.

To look on the bright side, as life begins to embrace the ‘new normal’ in our homes, cities and communities, albeit the imaginary horrors experienced by those like me, let’s store all the experiences of the past few months in a secure part of our minds for a time when we may look fondly upon the months of lockdown and tell our grandchildren and great grandchildren stories of how “My boss tested posi for the ’Rona so I was in iso. Popped down to the supermarket for some sanny, but it was all Magpie’d.”

Let’s call these memories, lockstalgia.

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