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Swallowing the dictionary - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Nov 18, 2022


From ‘gaslighting’ to ‘quarantini’, ‘WFH’ to ‘incels’ - Johnny Grimond explores the origins of modern-day buzzwords

What an excellent word is ‘swallow’.

No sooner had this thought come to me, prompted by my watching the winnowing flight of a pair of these charming birds, than it was displaced by a second thought: how on earth could ‘swallow’ become the name of both a bird and a gulp? The answer is that, although both kinds of swallow are rooted in Old English, they come from different words: swealwe for the bird; swelg for the gulp, via ‘abyss’, ‘throat’ and ‘gorge’.

With discoveries like this, I mused, I can write a column about the language of summer without analysing ‘elbow bump’, ‘super-spreader’ or ‘furlough merlot’. No need to pretend I’ve been virtually quaffing ‘quarantinis’ and other ‘locktails’ with ‘covidiots’ – I mean celebrities – without mentioning the ‘elephant in the Zoom’.

No need even to admit that I’ve been ‘fattening the curve’ (my waistline). Certainly no need to tell you what a testing time I’ve had while ‘WFH’ (working from home) and getting my head round ‘QALY’, a ‘quality-adjusted life year’, which is used to ‘judge the effectiveness of a medical intervention by setting the years of good life saved against the cost of achieving them’.

So much for my efforts at restraint. In truth, neologisms are often fun and at times useful, even if they are short-lived, which I guess most of the language of lockdown will prove to be. But not all new words have been related to the pandemic. I’ve found plenty of novelties, and some familiar terms serving new (to me) ends.

One such is ‘gaslighting’. I have fond memories of a cousin’s house lit entirely by gas and, though Leerie no longer lit the lamps in the 1950s, I’m old enough to remember the glow of gas lighting in the streets; so I’ve always thought of gas lighting as rather gentle and romantic.

But another, more sinister kind of gas lighting has been around since 1938, when Patrick Hamilton’s play Gas Light was first performed. This, and two later film adaptations, introduced ‘gaslighting’ as ‘a form of psychological manipulation designed to make a victim come to doubt his, or more often her, sanity’. It is now much in vogue in this sense, and was notably used in June 2020 by a group of 31 MPs who said black people in Britain had been subjected to ‘gaslighting’.

Other terms that reveal non-COVID aspects of 2022 life are ‘apartners’ and ‘living apart together’, both of which refer to those who like each other enough to have sex together but choose not to live under one roof. An alternative is to ‘self-partner’ – ie, ‘go it alone’ – a contented choice for Emma Watson, the actress who coined the term.

Not all self-partnered people are so relaxed, though: ‘incels’ tend to be unhappy, sometimes furious, at finding themselves ‘involuntarily celibate’. I haven’t yet heard of a term for people divorced during lockdown (DDLs?) or simply driven bonkers by parents, children, husbands and wives (XS-relly syndrome?). Something will come.

Another word of the times is ‘binge’. I’ve read of umpteen box sets and mini- series supposedly suitable for ‘bingeing’. I’ve also come across ‘bingeable podcast programming’ and a ‘binge-worthy’ opera director, whose ‘capaciousness of vision’ can be ‘binged’.

Some other words have been ‘repurposed’. ‘Swatting’, for example, now means ‘ringing the police anonymously and telling them that a violent crime is taking place in the house of someone you dislike, in the hope that a SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team will be sent round to break the doors down’. This is said to be common in San Francisco and Seattle, where the tech industry’s billionaires are widely hated.

Perhaps my most enjoyable discovery, though, concerns a feature of the modern world that has not been much in evidence of late: ‘management’. This, I learn, used to mean ‘spreading manure’. Some may say it still does.