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What George Orwell would have made of social distancing

Rashmee Roshan Lall April 23, 2020

As ‘social distancing’ becomes the norm for the foreseeable future, we may need a new vocabulary to deal with the crisis, Rashmee Roshan Lall writes.

On April 15, Denmark became the first country in Europe to relax restrictions on educational premises, reopening schools for first to fifth graders.

The decision was a difficult one for the Danish government – after all, what do children do best other than congregate and cry together?

‘Social distancing’: Finding the right words

For humans, social distancing and the so-called lock-down goes against everything we’ve evolved to do – live, work and socialise together – to succeed.

And for children whose early development rests so much on socialisation with others, it’s particularly hard for them to grasp.

As Aristotle once said, man is by nature a social animal. Younger humans have an innate need to reach out to others – to touch, feel, ‘experience’ other people.

How then, do parents, guardians and carers prepare children for a new way of life that will dominate their childhoods for years to come?

Part of the answer could lie in our use of terminology. In a global pandemic, is social distancing – and all its connotations – really the right message we need to get across?

In future pandemics as well as this one, we need more social closeness whilst respecting physical distance. But how do we convey that to children? Looking to George Orwell may give us some clues.

New virus, new vocabulary

The Indian-born essayist and journalist once cast scorn on the idea that words were “vehicles of thought”. In his essay ‘New Words’, Orwell insisted “that from the point of view of exactitude and expressiveness our language has remained in the Stone Age”.

His proposed solution was “to invent new words as deliberately as we would invent new parts for a motor-car engine”.

It’s easy to understand why Orwell would say that. He wrote the essay in 1940, a time when the formation of new words was a notoriously “slow process”.

In fact, said Orwell, he had read that “English gains about six and losses about four words a year and no new words are deliberately coined except as names for material objects”.

It was a time when abstract words were never coined and old words simply re-purposed.

Social distancing, too, appears to be a phrase from an earlier time. It means the opposite of what it recommends and doesn’t describe what it requires.

Orwell would recognise the general reluctance to invent new vocabulary. But as he wrote, it is essential to “deal with parts of our experience now practically unmeanable to language.”

The pandemic should be a trigger when it comes to new words. It is probably necessary to find a more evocative way to say what we feel, want or need. We are in a situation that the human race has not experienced for more than a century.

The covid-19 outbreak could be a portal to a new, more practical vocabulary. As Orwell wrote, it could lead to the coining of “names for the now unnamed things that exist in the mind.”

Social distancing and the new reality

Covid-19 and social distancing has created a number of unnamed experiences.

Our status quo looks to be a fact of life for some time. Harvard researchers say we might need to practice some level of regular social distancing until 2022 to stop the spread.

We need a new word to express the pain, monotony and acute loneliness of social distancing – especially for the very young.

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Journalism by trade & inclination. Editor, broadcaster, international affairs columnist