Tatyana Shakhmatova: “Lockdown is the word of the year in the world, and in Russia — self-isolation”

We analyse the vocabulary of the pandemic together with an expert philologist

Tatyana Shakhmatova: “Lockdown is the word of the year in the world, and in Russia — self-isolation”
Photo: courtesy of Tatyana Shakhmatova

“Every period of serious breakdown leads to a change in the lexicon. Before the pandemic, the transience of life was stressful, we were constantly under stress, and the words-psychotraumas were actualised. And when COVID-19 happened, a new ethic was actualised because people turned out to be a 'homo confusus'," says Tatyana Shakhmatova, a philologist from Kazan, who is living in Belarus under the influence of life circumstances, in the interview with Realnoe Vremya. The candidate of Philological Sciences, writer also spoke about the main words of the “Covid-19" year, cited life-affirming Belarusian neologisms and discussed how the virus has affected the new ethics.

“There have been powerful shifts in self-perception and in our attitude to the world”

Tatyana, how has the COVID-19 pandemic enriched the Russian language? How significantly has the spread of the new coronavirus infection affected the Russian language?

The pandemic has changed us in the first place. We are facing new challenges. During the quarantine, we became different and learned a lot about ourselves. There have been very powerful shifts in self-perception, and in our attitude to each other, and to the world in general, its instability.

The changes were just huge, as a result, a large number of new words appeared. The Word of the Year project showed that the words “quarantine”, “self-isolation”, “distancing”, of course, “Covid-19" are firmly in use. “Covid-19", oddly enough, did not become the word of the year either in Russia or in the world. “Lockdown” is the word of the year in the world, and in Russia, it is “self-isolation” and “remote”. Certainly, the coronavirus was the cause of major changes, but these changes themselves are primarily associated with lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation. That is why these words came to the fore and became the most important.

Why is the word of the year in Russia different from the world word?

In general, we coincide with global trends. In English dictionaries, “lockdown” has been recognised as the word of the year, but in our country — “self-isolation”. We did not officially declare quarantine, “self-isolation” is a word with a more vague meaning, as, in fact, our isolation itself is not quite a European lockdown. But in general, these words are synonymous. In both cases, it is the process of sitting at home that is important. We also match in the words “Covid-19", “coronavirus”, “distance”, “distancing”. Some differences in the main words of the year are related to the different socio-political circumstances in which our isolations took place. The English language includes such words as furlough — forced unpaid leave, key worker — an employee of a vital specialty for the functioning of society. In Russia, the words “Constitution”, “amendments”, “zeroing” came to the fore, because we were caught up in these processes.

The words of the year, as a rule, reflect exactly the current agenda — everything related to the epidemic, new working and learning conditions (remote, Zoom, zoom conference, zoom bombing — an attempt to invade someone else's conference for the sake of laughter or even fraudulent actions).

The words such as “vaccine”, “mask”, “gloves”, “symptom”, “infection”, “pulse oximeter” were activated. The reverse trend of increased interest in medical topics was, of course, the denial of Covid-19, and then there were the neologisms such as “covidiot” and “Covid-19-dissidents”.

Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov
Certainly, the coronavirus was the cause of major changes, but these changes themselves are primarily associated with lockdown, quarantine and self-isolation. That is why these words came to the fore and became the most important

“Neologisms, based on language game, from Russia confirm our irony in relation to absolutely everything”

In your opinion, will “Covid-19" neologisms be included in speech for a long time or they will disappear as soon as the pandemic subsides?

It is clear that as soon as the pandemic subsides, first of all, the medical topic will go away. We will stop using masks, this word will leave our vocabulary and will no longer be so relevant. It is abnormal that we began to use the word “pulse oximeter” in everyday speech. When, God forbid, and I hope that this will happen very soon, the vaccine will really start working, collective immunity will be formed and we will return to a more or less normal life, the words from the medical lexicon will leave us.

Another thing is that there are words describing the realities of remote work, new teaching experience, gaining knowledge, doing business, negotiations — remote, telecommuting and everything related to them. Up to the point that there appeared entertainment — zoom parties, and my retired mother, for example, participated in online gardening marathons(!), she was very happy, and now she associates “live broadcast” not with the TV format but with Instagram. It is worth talking about working people and students, for many of whom the network reality has replaced the reality of the office, school, university.

There's no guarantee that when we return to normal life we will completely exclude these formats of interaction from our practice. I'm even sure that we have mastered them thoroughly. Simply because it is convenient — for example, delivery, contactless ways of receiving various goods and services. Probably, the words like “remote”, “zoom-conferences” will actualise and grow with new meanings in the format of Internet communications.

In your memory, were there events that changed the lexicon as much as the COVID-19 pandemic?

If we talk about Russia, our vocabulary changed very much after the collapse of the USSR. Our realities and vocabulary changed completely. The Soviet lexicon almost completely disappeared for the 1990s — all these “party cells” and “party assemblies”, “socialist competition”, “kolkhoz”, “gosplan” became historicisms. All this was replaced by “new Russians”, “new economic relations”, “market economy”, and “perestroika” — “free market competition”.

It was a flurry of new words, ideas, a completely new vector in the development of literature. Every period of serious breakdown leads to a change in the lexicon.

Photo: wikipedia.org
If we talk about Russia, our vocabulary changed very much after the collapse of the USSR. Our realities and vocabulary changed completely

“When COVID-19 happened, a new ethic was actualised”

What are the interesting trends you could identify?

Recently, I've reviewed my own articles about the words of the year of previous years. As a result, a very interesting point was found. In 2016, “post-truth” was chosen as the media word of the year (circumstances in which objective facts are less important in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotions and personal beliefs). In 2017, the word “fake news” prevailed. And the year 2019 gave us the word “post-irony” (a satirical technique in which sincerity becomes difficult to distinguish from irony). This is when people so get absorbed in postmodern codes that when we get some information, we can't tell if it's a joke or serious one.

When I looked at what words will pop up with the foam of the Internet to the surface in 2020, I found a very interesting trend. In 2020, many articles were published on the topic of how to distinguish fake news from real ones. Moreover, there are even manuals on this topic. This suggests that if in 2017 the word “fake news” was new and frightening for us, by 2020 we had got used to it and such news has become part of our reality. We have learned to live with them, but of course, it is not always easy to separate one from the other. Probably, every more or less educated and sane consumer of modern media would say that fake has no continuation and also operates with emotions, not facts.

It turns out that the words, that until recently have been neologisms for us — “post-truth”, “fake news”, “post-irony”, entered our lives, we have got used to them, and, probably, now a new era is coming. We have become accustomed to weird news, have learned to live with them, accustomed to absurd turns, combining that cannot be combined, learned to live in a world that went through a “phase shift”, there is clearly a demand for some kind of new word for the condition of people adapted to absurdity. Literary critics call this character a hero of postaward.

There is another interesting point associated with the actualisation of the phrase “new ethics” due to the confusion of a person in the face of new conditions. Well-known linguist and neurophysiologist Tatyana Chernigovskaya at the very dawn of the pandemic used a very successful expression — Homo Confusus. It very well describes the state that has befallen us in connection with the pandemic. The world was already unstable and constantly got off the beaten track. And the pandemic eventually pushed us into the open field. All the horror of the new era of information, of the new ways of social regulation that COVID-19 has spurred, forcing us to move to computers and transfer our lives to social networks, is expressed by the new ethics. The meaning of this phrase is still debated. We are still unable to determine in principle whether this is the newest ethics or the ethics is still old. Such an elusive concept.

The new ethics did not come out of nowhere. In 2017-2019, the words which meanings are associated with psychotrauma and psychological protection came to the fore. For example, in 2018, the word “toxic” was very popular. The words “gaslighting” (from the English title of the play “Gaslight” — a form of psychological violence and social parasitism, the task of which is to make a person suffer and doubt the adequacy of their perception of the surrounding reality), “triggering” — to click on some emotion to make a person explode, “hating”, “school bullying”, “personal boundaries”.

This is certainly a trend that speaks to how important emotional sensitivity has become. We moved inwards, into ourselves.

Photo: newizv.ru
On the one hand, we want to be more flexible and soft, there are movements like Me Too, but on the other hand, this process results in public harassment, harassment for words, some outright nonsense

In 2020, all this also remains relevant and even gets its continuation. But in parallel with this trend, there is another one where the key role in the idea of ethics — what is right, who is right. The new ethics is just an attempt to look at us from the outside, what is ethical and not ethical, what is right and what is not right. So far, the steps in this direction are, let's say, rather chaotic. On the one hand, we want to be more flexible and soft, there are movements like Me Too (a hashtag that instantly spread on social networks in October 2017, emphasising the condemnation of sexual violence and harassment), but on the other hand, this process results in public harassment, harassment for words, some outright nonsense. We can recall the recent case of J. K. Rowling, when it is not clear why a person is excluded from films based on own scripts, they stop signing contracts with her, and so on.

By Kristina Ivanova