Your article on the language of Boris Johnson’s speech (‘Invisible mugger’: how Boris Johnson’s language hints at his thinking, 27 April) examines the use of metaphors during this crisis. Equally important is the very use of vocabulary. One of the most popular words of the moment is “unprecedented”, increasingly used by politicians as if it meant “unpredicted”. This crisis was both predictable and predicted, as your reporting makes clear. But to imply that this pandemic was unpredictable and unpredicted relieves politicians of culpability.
Other linguistic constructions have all the appearance of the beginnings of a blame game; in particular “we are following the science”. To think there is some single and undisputed body of knowledge and method called “the science” is plain wrong. But if politicians can maintain the fiction that there is something called “the science” and they simply follow it, then how can they be blamed? As you say, vocabulary and metaphors are not neutral constructs.
• The constant use of war analogies is enabling ministers to treat the public as if they were unable to grasp the risks attached to particular strategies. Talking about the coronavirus as “the enemy” allows the government to keep its strategy, if it has one, secret. The difference is that the virus is not like a wartime enemy; it is not listening, nor will it alter its behaviour if our strategy is publicly known. There are no spies feeding the information to the virus.
The arrogance of ministers at the daily briefing, repeating over and over that they are taking “the right decisions at the right time”, suggests an omnipotence that they surely do not have. History will decide whether the decisions were the right ones. Right now it seems the government has no more idea what to do than anyone else, and that is why it trots out platitudes. Are they reassuring the public or themselves?
• I am starting a one-man campaign to eradicate the spread of the “ramping up” virus, which seems to be afflicting politicians, journalists, and anyone who comments on the Covid-19 pandemic. I yell at the radio every time Matt Hancock talks about “ramping up coronavirus testing”, which he does several times during the “Hancock’s Half Hour” briefing at 5pm. Why has he abandoned the perfectly adequate verb “increase”?
Could we start, please, with an instruction to all Guardian journalists to call out politicians who use the phrase? They themselves should pay a £100 penalty into a “ramping up” box each time they use it in an article. Proceeds, of course, to the NHS or social care, according to the editor’s choice.
• I congratulate the Guardian for using the term “physical distancing” rather than the misnomer “social distancing”. Physical distancing actually enables some social contact. It helps us to visit and support those who are self-isolating. It has allowed me to sing with my neighbours: for the NHS on Thursday evenings and to celebrate May Day on 1 May: the first time in 400 years that May Day has not been celebrated with singing from the top of Magdalen Tower in Oxford.
Dr Hazel Dawe
• “I am ashamed of sending colleagues into mortal risk on my behalf” says Dr Alan Willson (Letters, 27 April). So should we all be, particularly the government. There is an old Dutch phrase, “verloren hoop” which meant “lost heap” and referred to the soldiers who were put in the frontline of a battle in the certainty that they would die. Without PPE and all the protective gear, some of our caring staff have been treated like that “lost heap”. The phrase later became “forlorn hope” in modern English. which has quite a different meaning – our marvellous NHS has not been a forlorn hope, but “a very present help in trouble”, and we thank them from the bottom of our hearts.
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