Can a lockdown beat the coronavirus? Last heard, epidemiologists and economists were still locked in bitter battle over that one. But Collins Dictionary has settled it. “Lockdown” wins hands down, and has been crowned the word of this annus horribilis, leaving “coronavirus” and other pandemic-triggered words behind. The word has been quite the super-spreader, turning up in multiple languages to stand for the stringent restrictions that humans across the world have accepted on their movement and social life in the hope of taming the virus. Its etymology lies, unsurprisingly, in prison life — it once referred to a security measure to confine exuberant inmates of jailhouses when they went out of hand. In India, it also came to mean the colossal apathy that left thousands of migrant workers stranded, hungry and desperate.
The Sars-CoV-2 outbreak has snuck up on everyday vocabulary in other ways too. In the innocent early months of this deprivation, some performed rituals in balconies hoping to “flatten the curve”. Others watched WhatsApp scholars add to the “infodemic” by claiming that NASA satellites had proof that a clanging army had chased the virus away. “Covidiots” partied, others rustled up frugal “quarantine meals” and plenty of indignation. As the virus went rogue, “doom-scrolling” and reading up on dire news became a habit. The ravages of pandemics have been felt on the tongue before, of course. In 11th century England, the Black Death or the bubonic plague wiped out nearly a quarter of its population — especially, the French nobility. The vice-grip of the French language on the court and the country waned, the stock of English-speaking peasants and traders rose — and the English language gained in strength in its native kingdom.
If the human race is lucky, and if populist demagogues have not entirely short-circuited the workings of science, this pandemic might leave far fewer scars on the language. Might we even forget the meaning of lockdown? To that hope, raise a quarantini.