Pro-lockdowners manipulate language to scare us all into compliance

Tell patients they have a 99 per cent chance of surviving an operation, and they’ll go for it. Warn them they have a 1 per cent chance of dying, and they might not. This is Nudge theory, popularised a decade ago by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The same information, differently presented, makes all the difference.

So I was fascinated to see that officials are now rebranding Covid restrictions as “protections”. Will it get more people buying into the whole idea? It sounds implausible, perhaps. But look at it like this: instinctively most of us are hostile to restrictions. But protections? They make us feel warm, cosseted and cared for. They are simply more difficult to get all heated about. A different word? A different result.

In fact, the entire language of Covid has changed in a more fundamental way, even as the threat of the virus diminishes. When the Alpha variant arrived a year ago, followed by Delta, we carried on talking about the more generic Covid. But if you’re in government, and need people to steel themselves for another round of restrictions – sorry, protections – then you might want to shake things up. Covid was frightening in March 2020. But 20 months later, familiarity, while not quite breeding contempt, has certainly created a shrug and a ho-hum.

So, once a new variant came along, the language changed. Now we rarely hear Boris Johnson and his ministers talking about Covid. It’s always Omicron, in a way that never happened with Alpha or Delta. And where the government leads, the big broadcasters follow, with the rest of us tagging along behind. A friend of mine here in Kent contracted Covid last Christmas. A year on, and several more friends speak of picking up  “Omicron”.

Some people reckon this new variant sounds scary, and is therefore more powerful. But does it really? To me, a philistine when it comes to the Greek alphabet, Omicron sounds like a cream-layered sponge cake or an Olympic cycling event. My problem is not so much its scariness but its pronounceability. A month on, and I still can’t get it.

But what matters to those enforcing the new protections (see, I’m trained), is that Omicron is new and fresh. Newness gets people listening, paying attention and, ideally, wearing masks, maintaining distance and booking boosters. This is all vital, at least to those in charge, as we approach the third calendar year in which this blessed virus will play a big part in our lives.

There’s nothing new under the sun, of course, and language has always been manipulated and contested. The Tories called it the Council Tax, but Labour branded it the Poll Tax. Linesmen became assistant referees. The disabled became differently abled. We now talk about people of colour. LGBTQ+ is a new entry. So is TERF.

So, while our inner cynic might feel a little manipulated by the shifting sands of the pandemic lexicon, we must accept it as inevitable. Language is a tool to change attitudes and behaviour. And it all means that if we’re feeling a bit nudged, or even shoved, at least we know why.

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