Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 17, 2020

Etymology, Denotation, Connotation in the News: LOCKDOWN

“Stay at home” is the general English language order of the day during the Covid 19 crisis. Alternatively, “shelter in place,” and any number of alternatives.

We all know that words matter. Not merely for their objective meaning, but what they imply. There’s a difference between objective definition — denotation — and implication  — connotation.

I don’t know it for a fact, but I suspect that few — if any — municipal, state or federal governments use the the English term, “lockdown” to describe the current orders on limitations of personal movement during the Covid 19 pandemic. The word is freighted with negative connotation. Never the less, one can see “lockdown” reported in the media. It’s an excellent English word which immediately conveys the sense of what’s going on.

Let’s examine how we came to adopt those words, then explore a bit about connotation.

Stay

The first word in “stay at home” will serve as a softball to the Latinists out there. Modern English gets the word from Medieval Middle English steien (say “stayen“) via a familiar route: Old French ester (modern French retains ester: to appear in court), from Latin stāre, to stand.

There IS an Old English standan, from the same root, but it is not related to our present-day sense of “to stay.” It applies only to various senses of standing in place and a dizzying number of derivatives.

That’s it for French and Latin in this post. After this, we’re going to stay with Germanic roots back to proto-Indo European.

Home

All languages with which I have any acquaintance have a word for “home.”

Almost all Germanic languages have words for “home” that closely resemble one another, from an ancient, common root word. Those old Angles, Saxons and Jutes brought it with them to the shores of Britain. The Oxford English Dictionary cites not only Old German, Norse, Teutonic and Frisian precursors, but rarely-mentioned languages, including Old Lithuanian and Gothic. “Home,” in a variety of forms, has always been with us. “Home” is a fundamental concept.

In English, from the earliest records, we have hām, meaning anything from an individual dwelling to a village or town. We still apply “home” in a wide variety of contexts, signifying everything from the house in which we grew up to planet Earth. Everyone knows hām from hundreds of English place-names: Evesham, Cheltenham, name your -ham. That’s “home.” It’s been precisely the same word for more than 1,000 years.

Lock

Another word pronounced just the same as it was in Old English is lock, commonly spelled loc in old texts.

In the 10th century, before there were mechanical locks, loc signified a bolt or bar across the door. In the way that English has, the word was both noun and verb: both a thing and an action. One could put a loc across the door, or locan the door. Some language rules haven’t changed across many centuries. We’ll come back to a participial form of loc, below.

Down

It makes sense that directions have been with us for a long time: there, here, left, right, up, down. Before there was language, one can imagine our earliest ancestors pointing to indicate direction. By the time we English speakers were developing our language, we had a sophisticated way of referring to direction in relationship to the landscape. “Down” is an excellent example.

One of many words for a hill was dūne. Obviously recognizable as the word many English speakers now associate with sand formations shaped by wind or water, although the Scots still have it in its original sense, “doon.” In Old English, to descend from a hill, one would go ofdūne, “off the hill,” which gave us “down” (Dative case, to pacify any lurking Latinists feeling left out).

We clever English speakers have shortened it to “down.” We have little patience with expendable qualifiers.

LOCKDOWN

With the compound word, “lockdown,” we move from denotation to connotation.

It’s one thing to say that one will stay at home. “Home,” from earliest times, is one of the most comforting, reassuring terms in the language. Despite what Thomas Wolfe may have told us, we all want to go home again. In the present circumstances we’re stuck there, by decree.

To say one is “locked down,” however, is to evoke an entirely different set of associations, identified with the direst of concepts: imprisonment.

Morning and evening, and any time the warders declare, prisoners are locked down in their cells. It may be to do a headcount (another word worth investigating), or it may be to assure that the Warden or VIP visitors aren’t subject to rude interruptions by unruly or potentially violent inmates.

To be locked down in prison is the worst. Life ends. There are only the four walls of your cell, and you cannot open a door controlled by forces beyond your reach.

If you’re writing a speech for your local mayor, governor or president, advise them to call it a stay at home order, not a lockdown. By connotation, a lockdown is imprisonment. Bad things happen when you employ the wrong word. As Mrs. Drake advised me in both freshman and senior English, be cognizant of both denotation and connotation.

Envoi

Here, I’ll mention one of the most notable uses of Old English loc, from Beowulf. The form of the verb — “unlocked” — appears as onlēac, but it’s the same word we use today.

To him, the oldest one answered unerring,
Wisest of counselors, he unlocked his word-hoard.

He spoke: unlocked his word-hoard. As good as it gets in this language, so far as I’m concerned.

Have you spotted any notable uses of the language of restraint and containment in your part of the world? How do you say “Stay at Home” in your language?” Please leave a comment. Unlock your word hoard.

© Brad Nixon 2020. My translation from Beowulf, ll 1111-1112, ed. Klaber, D. C. Heath, Lexington, 1950. Etymology courtesy The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, Houghton Mifflin, New York 2000; Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971; Cassell’s French Dictionary, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York, 1982; A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, J.R Clark-Hall, Wilder Publications, 2011.


Responses

  1. Liked by 1 person

  2. ” … he unlocked his word-hoard.” I love that. Makes me imagine someone who does not suffer fools gladly finally letting loose and hitting the blithering idiot with a verbal smack-down.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One can assume that in the 10th century, one did not unlock one’s word hoard blithely.

      Like

  3. Whether we call what’s happening a stay at home order, a lockdown, or a be-smart-stay-safe order, the results are the same: unemployment, small business closure, despair, anger, grief, dehumanization, and the erosion of Constitutional guarantees. I understand a bit about economics, a bit more about diseases, and even more about politics: particularly what happens to people who get a taste of being able to control others’ behaviors.

    “Bad things happen when you employ the wrong word”? Indeed. And worse things happen when we take the wrong actions.

    Sigh. It’s not been a good day around these parts, but I’ll let this be my vent, and let it rest there, while I catch up on posts and correspondence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know. I understand. As I said in my preface, I do not in any way intend to downplay the impact of what’s happening. Words are just words. In the end, there are only actions, and only history will come up with the words for them. Be well, my friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. After living in Europe, Australasia and now Asia for the last 30 years, its interesting observing the different ways the cultures accept the realities of what has to happen to make the society we all live in, safe again. Asians have a collective discipline which is less about self and more about the common good and although confinement to what may be a very small apartment, is uncomfortable for a while, they understand the basics of the science, trust their leaders and accept why this has to happen for a while. Vietnam is through the tunnel and out the otherside with no deaths – an astonishing achievement and Malaysia, where I live – a country of 32 million people – has less than 100 deaths so far. Nowhere in Asia do people complain about their loss of “rights” because they are realistic and they are pragmatic and they will do whatever they have to do, just to survive this thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m out of step, entirely, with those who believe individual “rights” entitle them to do things that endanger the greater society. To me, that is the definition of incivility. Glad to hear from you. Stay well. We’ll be at home for a while … perhaps quite a while.

      Like

  5. Thanks Brad for this interesting history of the words. Denotation and Connotation and how the world looks at it. Time has to answer and still long way to go!

    Liked by 1 person

    • And, of course, both connotations and denotations shift over time — and words get squishy to understand. Thanks for commenting.

      Like


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