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How world events reshape how we communicate

Comms Concept
By Alice Wilkinson
19 December 2023

The Covid pandemic altered almost every aspect of society, including, it seems, leaving a permanent mark on the way we communicate. Recent research from Lancaster University, which analysed more than 224 million words in scientific articles, 772 million words in news articles, and various social media content, looks at the linguistic shifts triggered by the pandemic and provides insights into the influence of COVID-19 on our vocabulary and communication styles.

At the forefront of linguistic evolution are terms like “zoom fatigue” and “lockdown”, which have become embedded in our everyday language, reflecting the practical changes in our lives since the pandemic.

The research also reveals the powerful role of pandemic-era political messaging in shaping public perception and behaviour. The use of phrases like “the war on Covid” and metaphors based on journeys - like “we have come through the tunnel” – were used by politicians to convey a sense of urgency and solidarity. They also helped to ensure compliance with lockdown measures, whilst influencing our understanding of the crisis.

British news media also took part in discussions about “the science” – what it is and how it contributes to policymaking.

The research underscores the role of language in shaping our experiences of world events. Whether it's the bite-sized advice posted via Twitter from health ministers in various English-speaking countries, or the hyperbolic language used in the scientific writing of the time, world events like the pandemic leave traces in the very way we speak and write.

Of course, the Covid pandemic is not the first world event to change our language. The advent of the internet and digital technologies introduced words like "blog", "tweet", "viral" and "hashtag" - words we now use almost every day. Meanwhile, our growing awareness of environmental issues has given rise to terms like "carbon footprint", "ESG", and "greenwashing", which have shaped how individuals and organisations understand and communicate on the subject.

As we draw closer to 2024, it is interesting to see how the words we use to describe the experiences of past events are still framing our collective understanding of our history, contributing to an ever-evolving linguistic landscape.