We’re at war: The language of COVID-19

Harry Potter’s nasally-challenged nemesis, Lord Voldemort, is so feared that he’s referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named” by people of the wizarding world.

Much like a J.K. Rowling character, I find myself stumbling over my words as I talk about… you know… the situation we’re all in. The, um, current climate. These strange times. *Whispers* The virus thing.

I’ve heard others do it, too. It seems we’re all living under the “Voldemort effect”, not wanting to call out a chilling reality by its name. Although much lower on the Maslow pyramid of fears, it’s why we have so many euphemisms for things like periods, sex, and defecation.

Aunt Flo’s in town. Photo by Josefin on Unsplash

Then there’s people who just want a break from the subject. Because COVID-19 isn’t just an elephant in the room. It’s butting us in the face, crushing our thighs, and shoving its trunk down our pants. It’s exhausting. Talking about it indirectly is an attempt to look away, to catch our breath.

It feels futile. My Spanish teacher told me she’s prepared pandemic-free topics for her students. But within a few minutes of class, they’re back onto the virus. All roads lead to COVID-19.

So, if we’re going to be living with this elephant for a while, it’s worth looking into the language we use to talk about it.

War, huh?

We are at war. At least, you’d think we were if you were a martian eavesdropping on our leaders’ press conferences.

Boris Johnson:

“We must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy.”

Justin Trudeau:

“Canada hasn’t seen this type of civic mobilization since the Second World War […] we all have to answer the call of duty.”

Angela Merkel:

“Not since the Second World War has our country faced a challenge that depends so much on our collective solidarity.”

Donald Trump:

“We’re at war. In a true sense, we’re at war and we’re fighting an invisible enemy […] I’m a wartime president.”

It’s not just governments. Businesses are also adopting the language of war. “Task forces” and “SWAT teams” are being “mobilized” in “bunkers” to “combat the threat”.

Whenever a new event emerges, the language we use to talk about it creates a mental model. Everyone has their own mental model, but the prevailing one — as disseminated through the media and those around us — has a huge influence on how we think.

Systems thinker Fred Kofman says language is the filter through which we see the world:

“We don’t talk about what we see; we see only what we can talk about.”

Is the war metaphor useful, then, in allowing us to “see” COVID-19 and therefore tackle it more effectively? True, drawing on the idea of conflict puts us in the right frame of mind — this is no joke, roll up your sleeves, we’re at war, son.

Perhaps it also helps us to act altruistically. To answer the “call of duty” (Trudeau) and do “whatever it takes” (Johnson) to demonstrate “collective solidarity” (Merkel). The idea of war compels us to halt, albeit temporarily, our individualistic way of thinking. Through mantras reminiscent of wartime slogans, we’re asked to fall in line and think of the common good.

In the US, this has been polarising along party lines — with some Republicans refusing to “act like socialists” and continuing to back-slap on the golf course while their Democratic counterparts stay six feet away.

Do your duty: A British WW2 poster urging children to evacuate London. Source: Tim Welch, Flickr

What is it good for?

For some, the war metaphor leaves a sour taste in the… ears. No one is denying the gravity of the situation (well, almost no one). But for those who have actually experienced war, the comparison feels unsatisfactory to say the least.

The war metaphor comes with a baked-in prophecy that there will be a winner and a loser. Framing COVID-19 in this way sets up the hope — the expectation, even — that we will soon be quaffing champagne and basking in our “victory”. But any eventual declaration of victory is likely to be Pyrrhic. Just ask anyone affected by the “war on drugs” what victory feels like.

Victory? Winston Churchill visits bomb-damaged areas of London. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Then there’s the suspicion that some are positively embracing the war metaphor, rather than using it as a means to convey the seriousness of the situation. When Trump calls himself “a wartime president” you can almost taste the relish in his voice.

At a previous company, I remember watching a colleague suddenly morph from slouched desk monkey to fully erect “general” following a serious incident. The first order of business? Slapping a WAR ROOM sign on the door of the biggest meeting space in the building.

To these people, the metaphor works as a call to action. And maybe that’s fine if it helps them yank COVID-19 from the realm of abstraction into something tangible they can deal with.

The expectation is not that we stop using metaphors. Metaphors are so ingrained in our language we barely register them — it’s almost impossible to avoid them.

But the metaphor that pumps you up might be the same one that gets me down. Let’s be sensitive to that.

Get virus done

While some have gone into “war mode”, others have gone into “election mode”. The UK Government have rehired Isaac Levido, who managed the successful Conservative party election campaign in December 2019.

Why? To drill the government’s message so far deep into our skulls that we begin to babble it in our sleep. During the election, it was the endless repetition of “get Brexit done”, with pejorative references to the opposition’s “coalition of chaos”. The tactic is as subtle as a pink bear on a penny-farthing. But it works. Remember the opposition’s counter-message? Neither do I.

For measures related to COVID-19, the government have helped themselves to more words but stuck to the rule of three: Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.

The general public quickly adopt these soundbites as shortcuts to longer conversations. Just the other day I made the mistake of standing too close to the counter at my local Dollarama. “Social distancing, my friend!” the cashier yelled. In other words, “I’m concerned that you’re standing too close to me right now, I don’t want to contract COVID-19, nor would I like you to be at risk, so kindly step the hell back.”

Emerging language can give us efficient ways to navigate our pandemic-stricken world. But much like corporate-speak, it can feel confusing or alienating if you’re not “in the know”.

Consider, for example, “flatten the curve”. The first time I saw it was on a sign outside a coffee shop. “Get your beans delivered and help flatten the curve!” I soon found out what it meant online. But when you have to carry out research to decipher something, the shortcut turns into a bewildering dead-end.

There are positives to these shortcut expressions. Ordinary conversation-starters are now imbued with new meaning. “How are you?” was previously just an invitation for you to say “fine” as we passed each other awkwardly in the hallway. Now when I ask “How are you?” I want you to open up. I want to know how COVID-19 has impacted your day-to-day. I want to talk about your mental health.

Small talk has become big talk.

How you holding up? Photo by Akshar Dave on Unsplash

You say it best when…

COVID-19 occupies such a large piece of territory in our collective consciousness. It’s there in the morning, there in the evening. It’s the first item on every news site and social media feed. And just like a breakup, there are reminders everywhere even if you’re not looking at it in the face. Closed pubs. Empty schedules. Masks.

For my own mental well-being I avoid these reminders as much as possible. It’s hard, though. It seems like every company has “our response to COVID-19” plastered across its homepage. For those fortunate enough to still be in work and creating content: not everything has to be prefaced with “Because of COVID-19…” There’s comfort in distraction.

Resisting the urge to say something is tough, especially when it feels like everyone else is doing it. People are producing inspiring and creative things — and sharing them. They’re singing to their neighbours. They’re writing quarantine haikus. They’re drafting articles about the language of COVID-19.

You don’t have to. Life as we knew it is on pause.

It’s okay to be quiet.

Huge thanks to Marc Cinanni for editing this article.

Thanks to my content strategy colleagues at Shopify for the ideas on the war metaphor.

Content designer, short fiction dabbler, foreign language flirt. I do words and that at Shopify, Toronto.

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