Words, words, words

Published January 19, 2021
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

“A word is dead
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.” — Emily Dickinson

A FRIEND recently commented that his father who passed away just a couple of years ago missed experiencing a pandemic. He was born after the Spanish flu and passed away before the coronavirus hit our world. Living in times of a pandemic it is hard to believe that there have been people who had no idea what it means to live at a time when a disease has engulfed the entire world.

Indeed, as we obsess with how much the pandemic has changed life and will continue to do so, in terms of politics, the global order, work life, for obvious reasons (you can take the girl out of ‘sub-editory’ but you can’t take the sub-editor out of the girl), it is also fascinating how this past year has shaped our language, or rather the use of it.

In one short year, it seems, some words have become permanently prefixed with ‘self-quarantine’ and ‘self-isolate’ used so commonly that it’s hard to realise they would have drawn blank stares if used in 2019. In fact, it’s hard to remember examples of the use of ‘isolate’ or ‘quarantine’ as a verb, before last year. Were ‘quarantine’ and ‘isolate’ used interchangeably as they are now?

A small admission here: it took the pandemic for me to find out about the origins of quarantine — the 40 days ships and crew had to spend in isolation before being allowed onshore in Venice during the Black Plague. And for all the scientific progress mankind has made in the centuries between, it seems as if the modes of prevention have not changed much since. A quarantine for those arriving at the border is what was in place then and now to control the spread of an infection.

But I digress. The past year also forced us to venture (not too sensibly) into the world of medical lingo. Specialised terms such as ‘herd immunity’, ‘oxygen levels’ and ‘oximeters’ now slip into everyday conversations as smoothly as ‘insta’ or ‘tweeple’. By the time the first wave hit us, we all had become experts, thanks to our smartphones and ample time to read and panic about the coronavirus.

Another new yet permanent fixture in our everyday conversations is ‘social distancing’ though if one thinks about it, it is hard to reconcile the use of social with distancing. For it imposes upon us distances that are more unsocial than social.

But then, in a world turned topsy-turvy by a pandemic, words have taken on new connotations. And despite what it implies and enforces, social distancing in our new, uncertain world, is what the handshake was in the old days, ie the hallmark of civility and politeness.

And last but not least is ‘lockdown’, which was perhaps only used in films and shows about prisons or terrorist plots, but is now a widely accepted, worldwide policy. It is no longer a twist in a Hollywood thriller but an intrinsic part of our lives.

But oddly enough, there was little in terms of contributions in our own language as we wrestled with the pandemic. Was it because it is so easy to adopt English words and phrases that came to define 2020 — from ‘lockdown’ to ‘mask’ to ‘quarantine’? Did we really just not need any innovation in Urdu for the new normal? So it seems. Or was it because the damage caused by Covid-19 to Pakistan was far less and hence it has — so far — left little lasting impact?

But this is not to say that 2020 and corona gave us no memorable phrases. Thanks to Nadeem Afzal Chan and his Mukhtar (or should I say Mukhtariaya), ‘Gal vadh gayee aye’ definitely deserves the phrase of the year award, if we ever decide to give out such a commendation. In a country obsessed with politics and leaked audio (and video) tapes, the politician’s rebuke urging his Mukhtar to stay home during the first wave of Covid-19 caught the political imagination, and the public to a large extent. It was even turned into a song. It became our go-to phrase to describe any crisis or situation which threatens to deteriorate. For those who have not heard the conversation, please just use Google!

In fact, it has become as popular as the rebuke Khwaja Asif hurled at the PTI in 2015 on the latter’s return to parliament — ‘Koi sharam hoti hai, koi haya hoti hai’. Like ‘gal vadh gayee aye’, the Noonie stalwart’s phrase too has by now crossed party lines and gained universal popularity. It rolls of the tongues of PTI wallahs as easily as it does the PML-N members’ and even journalists’ when someone has to be criticised or rebuked.

But what made such phrases so popular? Their vagueness which allows them to be applied to multiple situations? Or is it because they were Punjabi, which is perhaps used most widely on television, compared to other tongues? Or was it just the implied doses of sarcasm and humour in them? Perhaps it simply reflects our obsession with politics at the expense of all else that even in the year of a pandemic, it was a politician who gave us a memorable turn of phrase. It is not easy to decipher why something becomes so popular. To contrast, consider the use by Farooq Sattar of ‘Meray pas tum ho’ during a talk to MQM workers; it was such a clever use of the title of a hit television series and yet it didn’t really catch on.

PS: But a personal disappointment was that ‘tanzeem saazi’ didn’t catch on at all.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2021

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