People used to cross the road to avoid me: now they do so as a duty. More worrying than alienation is the new, alien language the lockdown has produced which makes no sense. A shop notice demands “Keep a social distance!”: that means in normal English ‘in close conversational distance’ but in COVID-newspeak was intended to be ‘stay six feet away’. Surely that is an anti-social distance.
Accurate language is important, particularly in uncertain times. Where science is leading discussion, inaccurate or misleading words and phrases take on the borrowed cloak of that science as if they were just as much to be relied on, when in normal times they would just be taken as metaphor or forgivable sloppiness.
To be clear on the immediate example, “social distancing” is correct as describing the act of distancing yourself from others in society, which is to say outside your household, and a “social distance” is no more than the distance you actually stand from someone. It is not a measure of distance: that is deriving phrases backwards as if to write over their true meaning. Other new terms that have come in include “shielding”, which has a general meaning but has now attracted a specialist meaning in the context of lockdown (don’t ask me – I don’t know what it means) and various scientific terms which when used by those outside the specific scientific discipline lose their meaning or are misunderstood. Scientific terms are precise and accurate as terms of art – outside the context they become meaningless and even dangerous.
Hobbes took accuracy of definition to be the first principle of sensible thought and discourse. Failure in definition leads to error or even madness (that is another article). You cannot think about a subject defined by words if you do not understand the meaning of those words, just as you cannot understand the geometry of a circle if you only understand straight lines or the life-cycle of a milch-cow if your only reference is pigs.
Seeing then that Truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations, a man that seeketh precise Truth, had need to remember what every name he uses stands for; and to place it accordingly; or els he will find himselfe entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twiggs; the more he struggles, the more belimed. And therefore in Geometry, (which is the onely Science that it hath pleased God hitherto to bestow on mankind,) men begin at settling the significations of their words; which settling of significations, they call Definitions; and place them in the beginning of their reckoning.
So that in the right Definition of Names, lyes the first use of Speech; which is the Acquisition of Science: And in wrong, or no Definitions’ lyes the first abuse; from which proceed all false and senslesse Tenets; which make those men that take their instruction from the authority of books, and not from their own meditation, to be as much below the condition of ignorant men, as men endued with true Science are above it. For between true Science, and erroneous Doctrines, Ignorance is in the middle. Naturall sense and imagination, are not subject to absurdity. Nature it selfe cannot erre: and as men abound in copiousnesse of language; so they become more wise, or more mad than ordinary.