Tell me what metaphors you use and I will tell you… #ReframeCovid metaphors

By Aleksandra Salamurović
Photo by Dominik Reallife on Unsplash

„China and the rest of the world are sailing in the same river, which is churned up by storms and waves, and we hope that more people will swing the oar together to steer the ship through the dangerous water, instead of watching indifferently from afar” (Opinion article from BJ News, 26/02/20, provided by Jianan Zhang in the #ReframeCovid collection)

This year will be for sure remembered for the extraordinary global pandemic event, affecting and influencing the whole world. And what about the metaphors used to represent SARS-CoV-2, which is the official name of the virus, and numerous other aspects of the pandemic? Which ones will be remembered? I am sure that every reader will spontaneously think of one metaphor they find particularly interesting, generally relatable, witty, or emotional. And possibly many will think of one which has been especially pervasive in political discourse in several countries worldwide (although not in Germany). I began this blog post with one of my favourites and in a minute I will return to that.

Why are metaphors relevant when we talk about the pandemic in the first place? Metaphors are ubiquitous in language use because they enable us to explain something abstract or less known by referring to something more concrete or common. You can find an interesting example of metaphors used in scientific communication in the latest blog post here . The latest blog post by Elena Semino discusses the use of fire metaphors in regard to Covid-19. Besides the informational value, metaphors usually evoke specific emotions, which in turn can stimulate desired actions. This is why metaphors are often regarded as a means of persuasion par excellence (cf. works by Jonathan Charteris-Black). Since the lockdown was an unprecedented reaction to the virus outbreak, and there are still many knowledge gaps about the virus, it is more than expected that public actors will make extensive use of metaphors in order to explain and grasp the situation and what people are supposed to do.

In one of my favourite metaphor examples, the pandemic is explained or framed as a truly global phenomenon (“China and the rest of the world… in the same river”) including a journey (“sailing”, with an implicit time reference, because every journey has its start and end point), with some obstacles in terms of natural phenomena which are not so extreme, but nevertheless asking for caution  (“storms and waves”, “dangerous water”) and appealing to general solidarity beyond national borders. The relevance of the latter could be seen especially during March 2020, at least within the Western world (for an overview cf. Bieber 2020; again, with the exception of Germany).

This metaphor is one of more than 400 multilingual and multimodal examples gathered by linguists and non-linguists who joined together for the open initiative #ReframeCovid (cf. #ReframeCovid collection). The initiative was started on Twitter in March 2020 (that is why the hashtag is included in the official nomination) by the Spanish linguist Inés Olza. Soon after, other scholars working on metaphors such as Paula Sobrino, Elena Semino, Veronika Koller and many more worldwide have collaborated, making this a truly collective endeavour. The aim of the initiative was to offer an alternative communication setting for discussions about coronavirus by collecting metaphors from real language usage. In line with Elena Semino’s work on cancer metaphors, the goal is to offer a “menu” of alternatives, in particular, alternatives to war metaphors, which have been proved to be especially pervasive and frequent.

Emmanuel Macron, Pedro Sánchez, Victor Orbán and Donald Trump are probably the most prominent users of this type of metaphor. The case of the Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić is, to my knowledge, the most problematic one, since he has combined metaphors with references to several historical wars Serbia have fought since 1804. His speech on 15th March 2020, when he proclaimed a state of emergency, started with: “Ladies and gentlemen, dear citizens of the Republic of Serbia, as of today Serbia has been at war against an invisible enemy, a dangerous and vicious enemy that our country must defeat.” And at the end he stated: “I would now like to say something to all our people: Since 1804, from the first day of the emergence of the modern Serbian state, we, my fellow citizens, were dying, dying, dying. And it is good to appreciate our history, our tradition and to show how much we love our country. We have not yet recovered from two Balkan wars, the First World War, the Second World War, the wars of the 1990s.” This very first framing by the Serbian president had long-lasting consequences for the Serbian public discourse: the politicians continued to evoke a palpable risk of death through the use of metaphors, metonymies (“not even Lešće, Novo groblje, Centralno and Bežanijsko (all cemeteries) will be enough“) and similes (“like an Italian scenario“). Additionally, the leading epidemiologist Predrag Kon was promoted to sergeant, and citizens were divided into allies and culprits (e.g.  Gastarbeiter who wanted or had to return to Serbia). On 11th April 2020, during the 60 hours curfew in Serbia, a Twitter user asked: „Do you also have a feeling that somebody will take you down with a sniper rifle when you go out on the balcony?“. One of the responses was: “Indeed, I have a sniper rifle grandma (Srb. snajper-baba) opposite to my balcony. If looks could kill, you would have RIPed me a long ago”.

Critically oriented discussion on language use without being prescriptive is the quintessence of #ReframeCovid, and the example from Serbia above shows conclusively why #ReframeCovid is not only useful, but actually needed.

Even if we are still facing many uncertainties and hardships, let me finish with another fascinating example from the #ReframeCovid collection:

„Dayan milletim, geceyi gördük, güneşi de göreceğiz. Hold on my dear people, we have seen the night and we shall see the sun.“ (Turkish politician Devlet Bahçeli’s twitter on 21/03/2020, provided by Esranur Efeoğlu-Özcan)


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