Lockdown is the easiest word to say

We’re all using this word but we’ve got too used to it.

This particular word is less than 50 years old. When the BBC chose it to report Uighur attacks in China after 2009, it didn’t seem odd because China is a repressive and authoritarian state.

From 9/11, terrorist incidents had been followed by ‘lockdowns’. Once procedures for ‘lockdowns’ were devised, they could be used for emergencies in schools whether terrorist or not. Schools might even need two kinds. A response that applied before to army bases had become proper on civil premises in response to intruders of any kind.

The word originated from prisons, where lockdown followed riots by prisoners in the USA between 1973 and 1975. Now its extension has become normal for people who, we had thought, had not forfeited their civil rights. Like ‘safeguarding’, the word has spread into every part of life; people in the UK now refer to ‘safeguarding’ when all they mean is the parenting of their very own children.

‘Lockdown’ sounds nicer than ‘crackdown’ because its connotation is things being made safe (whereas Middle Dutch craken, perhaps with the same Indo-European root as Gaelic cracaireachd, means loud talk or a noise like a gunshot or a whip). All the same, our existing use of ‘crackdown’ must have eased ‘lockdown’ into use by providing a phrase for it to normalise to.

Two things come together here: language normalisation and affect psychology. In other words, we speak the way we do, to belong. But the flipside is: that changes the thoughts we’re prepared to entertain.

Dictionaries, which simply record the changing usage in language, are picked as ways to settle arguments ‘by definition’. The more we allow ‘lockdowns’ for wider purposes, the more acceptable the unacceptable is defined into being.

When it comes to the effects which provocative language and derogation humour may have throughout society people are very alive to this kind of critique but right now, those same people are more worried about the virus than the meme.

That’s unconscious, and subliminal. A phrasal verb compound used by lock keepers on American canals becomes a Trojan horse for new thoughtless thinking. Social psychologists call it ‘shifting acceptability’. In politics, it led to the concept of the ‘Overton window’. In cultural politics, it’s been applied to the jeopardy of humour (in matters such as Chris Rock’s Oscars monologue). On civil liberties, however, it appears we have a blind spot.

Lots of us know that misconduct spreads as it is seen to be tolerated. That’s why the British are so angry about Dominic Cummings disregarding lockdown: he’s far from the only one, if the accusations are true, but his prominence is the problem. We know that language can signal the adjusting tolerance level. That’s why there’s been a war of the words since the 1980s. And the people who called for earlier and harsher lockdown were often the very ones who had wanted to police the language before.

A word which means shutting the gate so that the boat can be lowered a level on the canal becomes the US-prisons equivalent of the UK ‘locking up’, and from locking up a prison floor it morphs into our quiet acquiescence in confining billions in the world.

We should keep each other safe and be responsible, obviously. Lockdown restrictions will flex in and out like jellyfish while the virus reacts. But the things we repeat when we’re not frightened are still true. ‘The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’, Orwell wrote; ‘The point is that the process is reversible.’[i]

The point is that we know from this word’s history that the attempt will be repeated. There will always be emergencies, and arguments for lockdowns. Let’s not get used to it.

[i] ‘Politics and the English Language’ in Inside the Whale, p.143 (Penguin 1962).

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