The language of lockdown

A guide to the new vocabulary we all find ourselves using — even if we don’t like it

May 14, 2020 12:21

Stay home: This of course means: “Stay at home” – but the lecterns for the daily press briefings are too narrow to fit the “at”. This one drives my husband apopleptic. Every time he sees or hears the oft-repeated mantra: Stay home – Protect the NHS – Save lives, he shouts: “It’s stay at home, stay at  home!” Of course, this has now been changed to astonishingly unhelpful injunction: “Stay alert”. This presumably means we have to be super-vigilant about clusters of coronavirus hanging about on street corners waiting to pounce on you the moment you leave the house. 

We are a family of language-obsessed pedants, all prone to pouncing on each other’s tiniest linguistic missteps. At a family lunch pre-lockdown, my niece suddenly said, “Do you realise that every single one of us has corrected at least one of the others today?”

At that point, we’d only been there three hours and there were nine of us, so an average of one correction per 20 minutes. If your family is driving you up the wall, console yourself that at least you aren’t cooped up with a member of my family.
The new normal: My personal pet hate. Who sanctioned shoving the word ‘normal’ off its adjectival pedestal where it has been strutting its stuff perfectly happily since the early 19th century (originally from Latin ‘norma’ — carpenter’s square, so conforming to a standard or rule) onto a noun perch where it doesn’t belong? Incensed, I decide it’s yet another modern phrase I want nothing to do with until a quick internet search reveals that it seems to have first surfaced during the First World War (and not, as people will no doubt tell you, after 9/11). 

Lockdown: To some, lockdown – a word usually used in prisons for a period when inmates are confined to their cells – is horribly apt: if you’re shielding or stuck in a small flat with no outside space, it might well feel as if you’re imprisoned. For others, it’s clear that reining in human activity has also brought benefits: less pollution, less traffic noise, plane-free skies, the reminder of what brings us happiness: good health, family, friends, good food, a walk in the sunshine. 

Social distancing:  I do love an oxymoron and this certainly seems to be one. The World Health Organisation (WHO) prefers the term “physical distancing”, which does indeed make more sense as distancing surely suggests being anti-social? 

Apparently, the idea if not the term dates back to (at least) Roman times, when lepers were compelled to live apart in leper colonies. Check out Leviticus, which goes on about leprosy at some length (13.46), “….he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp”. Or watch Ben Hur  for the heart-breaking scene when Charlton Heston goes to see his infected mother and sister at the isolated colony. 
The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 affected some 500 million people, a third of the world’s population at that time.

In St Louis, they were fast to implement social distancing measures - suspending public gatherings and closing schools and cinemas, and in San Francisco, you could be fined if caught outside without a face mask. In St Louis, the death rate was less than half that of Philadelphia.

Essential supplies: The government has decreed that we can go shopping as infrequently as possible for “essential” supplies. The phrase the government website ( uses is “basic necessities”, but everyone else says essential supplies. Now, as King Lear so famously complained: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars/Are in the poorest thing superfluous./Allow not nature more than nature needs,/Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.” 

It’s a defining characteristic of being human – to want more than our basic needs – so your “essentials” might include, say, cigarettes, which I might think is crazy, while you might consider my “essential” extra virgin olive oil ridiculous when any oil would do the job.  

In our household, we accept that it would be wrong to make a trip to the shops specifically for inessentials but if we actually need proper food, then it is surely acceptable to buy a couple of treats while at the shop. That is actually my husband’s logic. My own is that wine and chocolate are so obviously essentials that it’s inarguable. I wouldn’t say that I’m addicted but if you deprive me of either or – god help you - both, then you will soon scurry into quarantine to protect yourself - not from the virus but from me.  

For our son, “essential” supplies includes buffalo mozzarella. Yes, he really is spoilt. 
Useful tip: I have taken to hiding the chocolate at the bottom of the salad drawer in the fridge in the certain knowledge that neither husband nor son would ever open that compartment. 

Self-isolation (1): Voluntary measure undertaken by an individual or household to protect others or themselves from the risk of infection. 

Self-isolation (2): Confining oneself to a single room for the consumption of alcohol and/or chocolate to pre-empt excessive use of limited supply of same by other household members.  

Two metres: For some of us, 2m is equivalent to just over 6½ ft. If you’re a young, healthy jogger, however, 2m = approximately 1½ feet. No-one is quite sure why this should be. One theory suggests that perhaps it’s to do with the perceived refraction of light during motion, which makes a runner unable to judge distance accurately and therefore run past you with no attempt to leave a gap. Or it could be something to do with being a selfish tosser. Teams of scientists are working on these rival hypotheses as I write.  

Claire Calman’s new novel, ‘Growing Up for Beginners’, will be published on June 4. Available to pre-order from Amazon and other outlets

May 14, 2020 12:21

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive