The Write Stuff
COVID-19 Is Infecting Our Language
By Alan Crawford,
Now that Donald Trump admits COVID-19 is a real problem, he is calling himself a “wartime president.” It’s an “all-out military operation,” the president says, and his use of military metaphors to talk about this effort was probably inevitable. That’s because everyone else in politics and the media has been using such language to describe the situation for weeks. Doctors and nurses are “on the front lines.” We’re “deploying” resources to “fight this enemy.” Central Park has been turned into a “field hospital.” And on and on and on.
This is not the first time these metaphors have been applied to an illness. Way back in the late 17th Century, about the time of the Great Plague of London, a British physician named Thomas Sydenham wrote of “a murderous array of disease [that has to be fought against] and the battle is not a battle for the sluggard.” In 1918 — when the country really was at war — the Spanish flu was called an “invasion” that was “as dangerous as gas shells.” President Richard Nixon in 1971 declared “war” on cancer, that “relentless and insidious enemy.” People with cancer routinely “battle” it, and those who lose the battle are described as having fought “courageously” against it.
There are so many problems with the application of military language to diseases that you hardly know where to start. Natasha Wiggins noted in the British Medical Journal in 2012 that if cancer, for example, is described in these terms, to die of it can be stigmatized as a kind of failure. One cancer survivor, writing to the Independent and quoted by Wiggins, pointed out that a victim “did not lose the fight any more than I won it because I’m still alive.”
The use of metaphor serves a purpose, in writing and talking about diseases, Wiggins goes on, “because it enables communication of complex theories to an audience with little scientific knowledge.” But it should be deployed carefully by people with almost no relevant scientific knowledge. That means most of us.
Another reason to avoid using this kind of language when writing and speaking of situations that don’t in fact involve warfare is that it encourages thinking of these situations as forms of warfare. The political discourse right now is lousy with these metaphors, and in a time of social polarization only ramps up already-worrisome tensions. (Neither party in Congress should ever invoke the “nuclear option.”)
Setting aside some of the more substantive problems with this practice, here’s a tactical one. When military language is so routinely employed when it is inappropriate, it loses its rhetorical power. It’s simply overdone. Use metaphors if they serve your purpose, but try using fresh ones. They’ve got more punch.
Here are a couple of examples of more original — and therefore more effective — metaphors applied to disease:
“The infection begins with a brushfire in the immune system.” — Gina Kilata in the New York Times, discussing AIDS, 1992.
“Physical ills are the taxes laid upon this wretched life; some are taxed higher, and some lower, but all pay something.” — Lord Chesterfield, Letters to His Son, 1757.
Annoying Word of the Month: Epicenter. Technically, an epicenter is that piece of terra firma directly above the focus of an earthquake. It’s a seismological term and, in other uses, is a metaphor. Epi, apparently, means “over,” “above” or “outside.” Like epidermis, for skin.
But who among the countless thousands of journalists and politicians who keep referring to the “epicenter” of this pandemic knows that? Can any of them explain why epicenter is better than center? I’d doubt it. People say epicenter because it sounds more scientific than center, or just because they hear everybody saying epicenter and don’t want to sound like they’re not in the know. They’re saying it, in other words, without thinking about it, and that’s no way to communicate with precision. This pandemic is spreading into other areas of our lives, not least in the way we write and speak. And that we really can control.