Lockdown, social distancing, shutdown, mortality rate, pandemic, patient zero, covidiot and many more. Corona is a worldwide crisis event and the word creations and words that shape this time are almost all negative ones – like the above mentioned examples. This shows quite impressively how quickly a language can integrate new incidents into its vocabulary and grammar. But apart from the pure description and classification of something new, language can also be a powerful instrument to influence our thoughts and attitudes and thereby exploit or direct them politically.
Covidiot: All opinions beyond the politically defined mainstream
An impressive example, which in a very short time has spread around the world, is the word covidiot. A neologism made up of the two nouns covid-19 and idiot. The linguistic term used for this type of word-building is contamination or portmanteau word (other examples include brexit, smog, brunch, Oxbridge, motel). Two words are blended into one to form a new word in order to achieve a deliberate effect. Here, two already negatively connotated words (covid = disease + idiot = idiocy, stupidity) become a powerful ally. Covidiot was originally used to denote people who ignore public health advice, such as social distancing or to refrain from panic-buying. In the meantime, however, its meaning has expanded. Now it is also being used to discredit people and even scientists who do not believe that all the measures implemented by most governments, such as social shutdown or compulsory wearing of masks, are appropriate or even necessary. The term is now being used to discredit those other opinions and people who hold these views and to portray them as "sick" and "idiotic". Controversial discussions, a scientific and interdisciplinary discourse and possibly a compromise solution is thus excluded and a debate does not take place.
Covidiot has thus mutated into a politically motivated ideologically coined term to denigrate opponents. The word creates negative associations and our brain can hardly escape them. It is no surprise then that authoritarian regimes always were and still are afraid of the power of language, the power of poems, songs or independent journalism and aimed to silence them. They tried to turn this effect into an advantage of their own by trying to influence people through language and unconsciously direct thoughts. George Orwell has shown this aptly in his dystopia 1984 using newspeak.
Rainer Schlötterer is founder and managing director of RS_Globalization Services GmbH & Co. KG.