The Covid Lexicon: The Creation of a Global Mindset

Manipulating public opinion          –  by Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD                                                               

The temptation to impose ones will on others is one that has been there for as long as humans have had language. It as the spectacle of fascist and totalitarian regimes in the 1930s and 1940s that led to a spate of writings after the second world on the tools and contexts likely to favour control of the masses. One was Theodor Adorno’s work ‘The authoritarian personality’ (1950) in which he identified a type that favoured control from an external authority; another was Edward Bernays, credited with extending the work of political propaganda into the post-war civilian sphere through what he called ‘The engineering of consent’ (1947).  A third was of course George Orwell who explored in 1984, (published in 1949), the way that language was used to shut down questioning and dissent.

With the British government imposing physical restrictions on people’s freedoms using a piece of Public Health legislation passed in 1984 of all years,  it is opportune to reflect on the extent to which the language of Covid19 mirrors that in Orwell’s novel.  Before doing that, a word on the power of language to influence the way that people think.

Language and thought                                                                                                                                 

There is a widely held view that language influences perception and emotions with even Charlemagne voicing the fact that ‘To have a second language is to have a second soul’.  Psycholinguisticians have now shown that Russian speakers’ ability to distinguish light and dark blue faster than other peoples may be related to the fact that there are separate words for these colours (‘galiboy’ and ‘siniy’ respectively).  The gender of a noun has also been shown to influence perception with the feminine bridge in the German language (‘Die brücke) evoking descriptions from Germans that place greater emphasis on the beauty of this object than in Spain where the noun has a masculine gender (‘El puente’) and speakers are more likely to emphasis its strength and length.  In a similar way, agency is more easily expressed in English than in Spanish (the first able to voice the belief ‘He broke the vase’ as against ‘the vase broke’ in Spanish) and watching identical testimony, English speakers are more likely to remember the identity of the person who caused the vase to break than the Spanish speaker.

So, in a world with around 7,000 languages, we could expect substantial cognitive diversity where  the imposition of a single language – such as we find in the world of corporate marketing – would shepherd people into a single mode of response.  In the case of business, the marketing industry has finessed its messages through punchy brevity (Think different, Apple, 1997), alliteration (Fly the friendly skies, United Airlines, 1966), and the ever popular ‘rule of three’ (Just do it, Vorsprung Durch Technik, Beanz Meanz Heinz; Diamonds are forever).  Of course, the selling of political ideas produces equally well-known phrases including; ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’ (Julius Caesar); ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ (French revolution); ‘Location, location, location’ (Harold Samuel); ‘Education, education, education’ (Tony Blair).

Given the power of language to shape thought, it is interesting to find Orwell analysing the way that the fictional language of Oceania, ‘Newspeak’, diminished rather than extended the range of people’ thinking.  With a new lexicon of Covid-19 making a rapid appearance across the globe in the last few months, how does this compare with Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’?   

Newspeak and the lexicon of Covid19                                                                                                             

In a spine-chilling appendix to 1984 (, Orwell explains the way that ‘Newspeak’ was designed to make ‘all forms of thought, other than that of Ingsoc impossible’, with the complete version allegedly appearing in the 11th edition (sic!) of the Newspeak dictionary.  Orwell deconstructs this fictional language, revealing the three categories of language, A.B and C underpinning it.

So-called A-type vocabulary is said to cover everyday ‘purposive thoughts’ evoked by words such as  ‘hit’, ‘run’, ‘dog’, ‘tree’, ‘sugar’, ‘house’, ‘field’ which ‘leave no room for nuance, or degrees of meaning’.  By contrast, ‘B-type words are those with political or ideological significance tailored to engender blind acceptance of the Party’s doctrines.  These are composite words that eradicate the associations that would attach to the separate presentation of the words, with the contraction of the words ‘Communist International’ to Comintern showing how an image of universal human brotherhood, red flags, barricades, Karl Marx, and the Paris Commune can give way to a tightly-knit organisation with a well-defined body of doctrine. Other examples include the word ‘thinkpol’ in place of ‘thought police’ and Orwell shrewdly observes that a further effect is ‘to make speech, and especially speech…. as nearly as possible independent of consciousness’.

The third type of vocabulary, type C, includes words that specifically relate to science and technical fields and disciplines but so expressed that the language would not allow an individual to ‘gain access to too much knowledge’.   As a consequence, scientific processes and the word ‘science’ do not feature in Newspeak.

Understanding these three basic elements, how does the language of Covid-19 compare to Newspeak?  And what stylistic devices, if any, underpin the Covid-19 lexicon?

In fact, there is no shortage of cases of Category A- type words and phrases.  These include:

‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’ (the UK) and its replacement on 10 May of ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’.  Note the ‘rule of three’ here – always at the ready – and the nominalisation of the word ‘virus’ which removes all dispute concerning the presence of a biological form that some doctors (eg Drs Kaufman and Cowan) dispute has been appropriately isolated and tested.  Note also the phrases ‘Feeding the nation’; ‘Clap for carers’ (brownie points for alliteration and rule of three); ‘Wash your hands’; ‘Quarantine’; ‘Essential shopping’ and ‘Essential travel’. 

In terms of category B type words, we have the ubiquitous ‘lockdown’, a word normally reserved for prisoners confined to their cells but extended to civilians – ominously – in a 2010 Rockefeller document that details an imagined pandemic scenario in 2012, necessitating what the document describes as a ‘Lock step’ policy (see  In addition, there are words that although not physically joined, are viewed as inseparable such as ‘New normal’, ‘Contact App’, ‘Social-distancing’ and ‘Second wave’.

Where C-type words are concerned these might be thought to include ‘Covid-19’; ‘Test positive’; and ‘Fighting coronavirus’.  The justification for considering these to be category C words?   According to Orwell, such words leave the science presumed and explained where in fact, such clarity and consensus may be absence.  In fact, one recent commentator has summarised the scientific evidence as ‘junk’ (see and questions could be posed of all three of the concepts set down at the beginning of this paragraph.

What type of questions?  Well, the word ‘Covid-19’, coined by the UN’s WHO in February 2020, implies a virus-originated illness where many scientists dispute that this is the only or real cause of the listed symptoms.   By analogy, the phrase ‘Test positive’ presumes the accuracy of a PCR test created by Novel Laureate biochemist Dr Cary Mullis that was never intended for diagnostic purposes and that is alleged by some doctors to deliver 80% false positives. Finally, the phrases ‘Fighting coronavirus’ and ‘The invisible enemy’ presume that there is a virus to fight, and with this as well as germ theory now questioned by many scientists, these  phrases become contentious. In fact, as Frank Furedi has suggested (see link above) they may simply be part of a tendency to present politics as evidence-based when the evidence for this belief is not presented in a form that permits public debate. 

Reason for grave concern                                                                                                                               

It would appear that elements of Newspeak are being used in the linguistic presentation of the lockdown, a disturbing finding given that this form of speech is designed to shut down thought.  Also concerning is the apparent roll-out of these concepts on a global scale.  A cursory search revealed, for example the appearance of the ‘lockdown’ concept in France as ‘le confinement’, a word suggestive of being kept somewhere by force while in Germany it features as ‘Ausgangsperre’, translating as ‘an embargo on going outside’.  Then, the notion of ‘Social distancing’ features in Germany as ‘Soziale Distanzierung’ and the ‘Stay home. Stay safe’ motto used until 10 May in the UK, is still used in Ireland. 

The snapshot of an international lexicon continues with ‘contact tracing’ appearing in Germany as ‘Kontaktverfolgung’, ‘Quarantine’ in Iran and daily clapping for the health services at 8.00pm in France.  Of course, the full panoply of Covid-19 words cited in this article are likely to feature in one form or another in English-speaking countries across the world. 

The global lingua franca that is the Covid-19 lexicon underpins the modification of marketing straplines globally.  So, Coca-Cola has changed the form that its advert takes in Times Square so that, instead of showing the usual connected Coca-Cola script, it displays the letters spread apart and a new tag line ‘Staying apart is the best way to stay connected’.  Likewise, Nike released a new advert with the words: ‘If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.”  These adverts have meaning for millions only because the concepts underpinning them have a global reach.  They also show the way in which commercial interests have joined forces with the political, a move that some might see as nudging society closer to fascism.

Reacting to Newspeak                                                                                                                                  

With politics locking arms with Big Business in the creation of a Newspeak lexicon, people need to ask themselves whether they want to use this vocabulary.  The words ‘Lock step’ appeared as early as 2010 in a Rockefeller document describing a fictional pandemic that would give rise to authoritarian leadership and would limit the scope for citizen innovation.  If you do not wish to see this scenario unfold, it is maybe time to consider whether to create and use an alternative lexicon.

Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially ‘fascist’ because it forces us to think and say certain things and so we are faced with a choice.  Either go on using the words and phrases created by the global political classes – conveniently ready packed and ready for use in 2020 – or create our own vocabulary.  Here are some suggestions from friends and acquaintances:

Existing lexicon New lexicon (for critical thinkers)
New normal New abnormal
Lock-down Lock-up
Social distancing Social isolation
Stay alert, control the virus, save lives Obey the rules, wreck the economy, kill people
Wear the mask Support the nonsense, perpetuate the fear,
be subservient
Throw away all the good work we’ve done Perpetuate our destruction

In fact, the decision not to use the language of the establishment has a precedent.  The Nigerian author Amos Tutunola wrote his first novel The Palm Wine Drunkard in 1952 while the country was still under British colonial rule and he used a pidgin to translate African cultural particularities into the English language.  So perhaps readers could suggest ways of expanding the lexicon so that the Newspeak lexicon is replaced with a language that leaves room for debate and discussion.     

Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD, formerly Professor of Management and Marketing, is the author of several books exploring diversity in management practices, thought and design.  She runs conferences on the topic of ‘Questioning History’, with the next one on 18-20 December 2020.  

Inquiries can be made to


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  3. George

    Coronavirus Cases Plummet When PCR Tests Are Adjusted
    Published on September 30, 2020
    Written by Barbara Cáceres

    Health experts now say that PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus associated with the illness COVID-19, is too sensitive and needs to be adjusted to rule out people who have insignificant amounts of the virus in their system.1
    The test’s threshold is so high that it detects people with the live virus as well as those with a few genetic fragments left over from a past infection that no longer poses a risk. It’s like finding a hair in a room after a person left it, says Michael Mina, MD, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.2
    1 Lenthang M. Experts: US CVOID-19 positivity rate high due to ‘too sensitive’ tests. Daily Mail Aug. 30, 2020.
    2 Ibid.

    In three sets of testing data that include cycle thresholds compiled by officials in Massachusetts, New York and Nevada, up to 90% of people testing positive carried barely any virus, a review by The New York Times found.3

    Manufacturers and Labs Set Criteria For Positive COVID-19 Test Results
    The reverse transcriptase quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) test used to identify those people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses a nasal swab to collect RNA from deep within the nasal cavity of the individual being tested. The RNA is reverse transcribed into DNA and amplified through 40 or more cycles, or until virus is detected.4 The result is reported as a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question of whether someone is infected.

    The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials state they do not specify the cycle threshold ranges used to determine who is positive, and that commercial manufacturers and laboratories set their own threshold ranges.5

    PCR Test Threshold For COVID-19 Positivity Is Too Sensitive
    Any test with a cycle threshold (CT) above 35 is too sensitive, says Juliet Morrison, PhD, a virologist at the University of California, Riverside. “I’m shocked that people would think that 40 [cycles] could represent a positive.” A more reasonable cutoff would be 30 to 35, she added. Dr. Mina said he would set the figure at 30, or even less. Those changes would mean the amount of genetic material in a patient’s sample would have to be 100-fold to 1,000-fold that of the current standard for the test to return a positive result worth acting on.6
    The CDC’s own calculations suggest that it is extremely difficult to detect any live virus in a sample above a threshold of 33 cycles.7
    “We’ve been using one type of data for everything, and that is just plus or minus—that’s all,” Dr. Mina said. “We’re using that for clinical diagnostics, for public health, for policy decision-making.” But “yes” or “no” isn’t good enough, he added. It’s the amount of virus that should dictate the infected patient’s next steps. “It’s really irresponsible, I think, to forgo the recognition that this is a quantitative issue,” Dr. Mina said.8
    The number of people with positive results who aren’t infectious is particularly concerning, said Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “That worries me a lot, just because it’s so high,” he said.9
    SARS-CoV-2 Positive Case Numbers Drop When Cycle Threshold Is Adjusted, Removing Need For Contact Tracing
    Officials at the Wadsworth Center, New York’s state lab, have access to CT values from tests they have processed, and analyzed their numbers at The Times’s request. In July, the lab identified 872 positive tests, based on a threshold of 40 cycles. With a cutoff of 35 cycles, about 43 percent of those tests would no longer qualify as positive. About 63 percent would no longer be judged positive if the cycles were limited to 30.
    In Massachusetts, from 85 to 90 percent of people who tested positive in July with a cycle threshold of 40 would have been deemed negative if the threshold were 30 cycles, Dr. Mina said. “I would say that none of those people should be contact-traced, not one,” he said.
    “I’m really shocked that it could be that high—the proportion of people with high CT value results,” said Ashish Jha, MD, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “Boy, does it really change the way we need to be thinking about testing.”10
    “Gold Standard” PCR Tests Leave Many Unanswered Questions Due To Knowledge Gaps
    A positive PCR test does not tell doctors whether the person is currently ill or will become ill in the future, whether they are infectious or will become infectious, whether they are recovered or recovering from COVID, or whether the PCR test identified a viral fragment from another coronavirus infection in the past. The CDC reports that a person who has recovered from COVID-19 may have low levels of virus in their bodies for up to three months after diagnosis and may test positive, even though they are not spreading COVID-19.11
    CT Value Adds Context To PCR Results, Personalizes Care
    Although the cycle threshold (CT) is not reported on PCR tests, new evidence suggests the CT value could help to better inform clinical decisions, particularly when testing in the absence of symptoms for COVID-19. When SARS-CoV-2 virus is detected after fewer amplification cycles, that indicates a higher viral load and a higher likelihood of being contagious, while virus detected after more amplifications indicates a lower viral load.
    “It’s just kind of mind-blowing to me that people are not recording the CT values from all these tests—that they’re just returning a positive or a negative,” said Angela Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist at Columbia University in New York. “It would be useful information to know if somebody’s positive, whether they have a high viral load or a low viral load,” she added.12
    In a study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in May, 2020,13 the authors suggested that viral load based on CT cutoff could establish whether inpatients have transmissible disease or need to be retested. This would conserve valuable testing capacity, reagents, and personal protective equipment (PPE), and determine when a patient could discontinue isolation. Taking the CT value into account may also help justify symptom-based strategies recommended by the CDC. CT values may enable contact tracers to focus only on persons most likely to be infectious, which will become increasingly important as asymptomatic screening expands.
    Another study14 found that patients with positive PCR tests at a CT above 33-34 are not contagious and can be discharged from the hospital or strict confinement at home.
    Evidence from both viral isolation and contact tracing studies supports a short, early period of transmissibility. By accounting for the CT value in context, RT-qPCR results can be used in a way that is personalized, highly sensitive, and more specific.15
    FDA Approves Rapid, Less Sensitive Coronavirus Antigen Test
    Highly sensitive PCR tests seemed like the best option for tracking the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic. But for the outbreaks raging now, Dr. Mina said, what’s needed are coronavirus tests that are fast, cheap and abundant enough to frequently test everyone who needs it—even if the tests are less sensitive. “It might not catch every last one of the transmitting people, but it sure will catch the most transmissible people, including the super spreaders.”
    The FDA noted that people may have a low viral load when they are newly infected. A test with less sensitivity would miss these infections. That problem is easily solved, Dr. Mina said: “Test them again, six hours later or 15 hours later or whatever,” he said. A rapid test would find these patients quickly, even if it were less sensitive, because their viral loads would quickly rise. People infected with the virus are most infectious from a day or two before symptoms appear till about five days after. But at the current testing rates, “you’re not going to be doing it frequently enough to have any chance of really capturing somebody in that window,” Dr. Mina added.16
    When a patient is tested for the coronavirus, doctors typically tell them to stay home until the results come in. If a patient tests positive and faces a two-week quarantine, that means they could spend a total of three weeks in isolation. That’s a long time for anybody who has bills to pay or kids to care for, and it’s understandable that some people will continue working until the results come in. The problem is that anybody who does this with a serious infection is putting others at risk.17 Rapid tests can be helpful in these situations.
    In late August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first rapid coronavirus test that doesn’t need any special computer equipment. Made by Abbot Laboratories, the 15-minute test will sell for U.S. $5 but still requires a nasal swab to be taken by a health worker.18 The Abbot test is the fourth rapid point-of-care test that looks for the presence of antigens rather than the virus’s genetic code as the PCR molecular tests do. 19
    1 Lenthang M. Experts: US CVOID-19 positivity rate high due to ‘too sensitive’ tests. Daily Mail Aug. 30, 2020.
    2 Ibid.
    3 Mandavilli A. Your Coronavirus Test Is Positive. Maybe It Shouldn’t Be. The New York Times Aug. 29, 2020.
    4 SARS CoV2 Molecular Assay Evaluation: Results. FINDDX July 3, 2020.
    5 See Footnote 3.
    6 Ibid.
    7 Ibid.
    8 Ibid.
    9 Ibid.
    10 Ibid.
    11 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Duration of Isolation and Precautions for Adults with COVID-19. Sept 10, 2020.
    12 See Footnote 3.
    13 Tom MR, Mina MJ. To Interpret the SARS-CoV-2 Test, Consider the Cycle Threshold Value Clinical Infectious Diseases May 21, 2020.
    14 Scola BL, Bideau ML, et al. Viral RNA load as determined by cell culture as a management tool for discharge of SARS-CoV-2 patients from infectious disease wards. European Journal of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Apr. 27, 2020; 39(6): 1059-1061.
    15 See Footnote 13.
    16 See Footnote 3.
    17 Editorial: Questionable Testing Thresholds. The Northside Sun Sept. 17, 2020.
    18 Foster R, Mundell EJ. FDA Approves New Rapid Coronavirus Test. WebMD Aug. 27, 2020.
    19 Brueck, H. Rapid coronavirus tests can give results in 15 minutes, but they aren’t a pass for partying or seeing your parents. Business Insider Sept. 21, 2020.

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