"Confinement", "social distancing" … A linguist decrypts the vocabulary of the coronavirus

He is a doctor. In linguistics.

Without taking gloves, Louis-Jean Calvet tackles words more than evils.

Former student at Lycée Masséna, in Nice ("I wrote for Le Patriote, a communist newspaper"), then university professor at the Sorbonne and Aix-Marseille, he confides in this famous confinement from his home, on the borders of Aix-en-Provence.

The coronavirus crisis could only inspire this specialist in "linguistic divide" with the suburbs but above all with the analysis of political discourse.

Can we already stop at the term "coronavirus", identical in all Western languages?

"As you know, this term designates the form of the virus, a crown. Now this Latin word is found in the Romance languages, but also in German (krone), in English (crown) and even in Russian (korona). so easy to remember. And maybe he reminds some people of the name of a beer (laughs) … "

What do you think of the semantics used in recent weeks?

"I am first struck by the choice of a vocabulary that is a little rare, or at least little used." Confinement ", first of all, which comes from an old French verb meaning" to enclose ". But also expressions strange like "barrier gestures", (washing your hands, not shaking that of others, coughing in your elbow …) or "social distancing" (standing at least one meter from the other), which has a few social connotations and could resemble a slip. The adjective "social" makes me laugh because at the beginning of Macron's five years, many people reproached him for not being interested in social. One could have said "minimum distance" …

Can new expressions appear?

"It is possible. And perhaps some may have a new career, with a broader or changed meaning. One can imagine parents threatening rowdy children to confine them, or someone complaining about the sound of a rooster or a dog at his neighbor’s and demanding that he confine him. I heard in the mouth of political or medical officials, to designate the fourteen days of confinement, the word "fourteen", which recalled at the same time the etymology of "quarantine", forty days. The popular creativity is infinite. I take an example which has nothing to do. Twenty years ago, the Chinese were often called among themselves "comrade" (tong zhi). Today, this term is used by homosexuals among themselves, and diehard communists can hardly use it … The language changes in social practices. "

In terms of creativity, a newspeak develops thanks to social networks, like the term "coronapéro". What inspires you?

"I hadn't heard" coronapéro ", it's not bad (laughs). It's nice, as we said when I was a kid. But it can disappear overnight! The problem of creativity, c is whether its products last. Languages ​​are a bit like sponges. They filter. There may be a flowering of creations, but maybe we will not talk about it in six months and even less in ten "It keeps changing. If you want to know what our language will look like in ten or twenty years, you shouldn't listen to the grandparents, but to the kids. Part of what they create will stay."

This epidemic brought new terms into common parlance and brought others up to date. Is it unique to great moments in history?

"Yes, often. The French Revolution or the war of 14-18 brought enormous changes in the linguistic situation. Paul Lafargue, the son-in-law of Marx, published in 1877 an article on French language before and after the Revolution. He emphasizes that the pamphlets used popular language and recalls the style of Father Duchesne who constantly used terms like "fuck" or "brothel". (1) And he gives long lists of words created during the Revolution: republicanize , pamphletize, chameleon, democratize, mobilize, depreciate, decorate, fuse … None appeared in the Dictionary of the Academy of 1835, almost 50 years later, but many are still used today. "

And in wartime?

"In 14-18, the regiments were originally made up of people of the same geographic origin … And then, with the many dead, we formed regiments by mixing the old ones. The soldiers could no longer speak Breton among themselves, Provençal or Catalan. They got into French, which was the language of command. It was one of the moments of the linguistic unification of France. And the beginning of the end of regional languages. "

Can the French language be threatened during a period of confinement, when there are fewer social interactions?

"The confinement would have to last a long, long time. Languages ​​do not change so quickly … Besides, it is difficult for me to make this kind of forecast. The linguist describes, analyzes, explains, but he does not read in the coffee grounds."

How do you analyze the communication from government officials?

"I don't know where the people who develop their" elements of language "learned their trade, but I am struck by a form of paradoxical injunction: announcing for example on March 14 that restaurants and cafes will be closed, that it will not You don't have to rally and maintain the first round of municipal elections the next day. Another thing appeals to me: we announced fifteen days of confinement first, then fifteen others. Now we know very well that it will last longer. not telling the truth from the start makes me think of a father who always says "tomorrow" to his kid until he answers: "Hey, dad, is today tomorrow?". Maybe that in power, they do not want to panic, but there is a kind of infantilization of the citizens. In the same way, there were patches on the masks: "We do not need it if we do not is not sick, "when the real thing is that we didn't have one."

Do you understand Emmanuel Macron when he does not use the term "confinement" in his speech to the French?

"He seems to have wanted to leave" containment "to the Prime Minister. As I said, the word is used a few times, but" to contain "originally meant" to put in prison "."

And when he says: "We are at war"?

"He put on the clothes of the President. Everyone recognized that he was speaking as President. But to mobilize his troops, he spoke of war. He actually said that word six times, opening the door to another semantic paradigm. "

That is to say?

"We are talking about a battle against the virus, to defeat it. I have heard of garbage collectors as" everyday soldiers ", nurses are heroes, they are" on the front line "against an" invisible enemy " We still have to hope that we will not "retreat" from the virus. The most beautiful is undoubtedly the use of the term "reservists" to designate members of the medical profession (doctors, retired nurses) who return to help their colleagues. The reserve designates in the army the soldiers who are kept available at the rear, to send them to the front when they are needed. We also speak of reserve officers, those who are not not intended to serve in the flags, except punctually, in case of need. The medical profession is thus militarized. However a war, that implies that someone declares it, an enemy who is also in war. The virus is not a human."


1. Father Duchesne is the title of newspapers published during the Revolution. Extract, during the resumption of Toulon (1793): "Victory, fuck! Victory! Aristocrats, that you are going to eat cheese! Sans-culottes, rejoice (…) Our enemies are at quia. Toulon is resumed, fuck! ".