Every year different entities, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, other dictionaries, news agencies and some international magazines such as Time, choose a word that has been very much in the news and call it the Word of the Year.
We aren’t half way through 2020 and already words connected with the coronavirus crisis are in the running for this lexicographic title.
There’s ‘coronavirus’ itself and also ‘lockdown’, which is being used to define our state of being indoors except for a visit to a supermarket for food and other essentials, buying a newspaper, going to a medical appointment or to the chemist and also for taking the dog for a walk.
The Spanish word for being legally bound to stay at home is ‘confinamiento’, which translates neatly into ‘confinement’, an old word that covers this situation. The French are also using ‘confinement’ but, of course, with a different pronunciation.
The definition of ‘lockdown’ is: “The confining of prisoners to their cells, typically in order to regain control during a riot”. As such it’s not in my two-volume Shorter English Dictionary or my full-size Webster’s Third New International Dictionary which, having been published in 1961, is no longer so new.
The Webster’s does have another definition for lockdown: “A strip of wood with holes in the end through which pins are driven to hold together a raft of logs.” Mark Twain would have been familiar with that sense of lockdown.
We get our word ‘confinement’ from the Middle French ‘confiner’ plus ‘ment’ — so, not surprisingly, do the French.
It’s a mid-17the century word that could mean imprisonment, restriction or limitation. By the late 18th century it had a medical sense: the condition of being in childbirth.
In those days having a baby was a serious medical problem and many women died in childbirth, either from direct complications, or afterwards from blood poisoning due to the use of unclean medical implements and general lack of hygiene.
As research medical scientists all over the world race against the clock to find a vaccine that can put the brake on covid-19, that’s another word we keep coming across on a daily basis.
The definition is: “A substance used to stimulate the production of anti-bodies and to provide immunity against one or several diseases, prepared from the causative agent of a disease, its products, or a synthetic substitute, treated to act as an antigen without inducing the disease”
It’s a late 18th century word we get from the Latin ‘vaccinus’ from ‘vacca’, meaning cow, because of the early use of the cowpox virus against smallpox.
Some typically gregarious Spaniards weren’t very good at keeping to their ‘confinamiento’: used to nipping into bars for coffees, cañas and meeting their friends, they broke the rules and wandered about when they should have been at home.
In haven’t seen official statistics for more than a week, but the last time I noticed, the police had fined getting on for a million people for being out and about when they shouldn’t have been. Some of those caught in the act weren’t very savvy. One man who was strolling around in the early hours of the morning, told the police he was out walking the dog — but he didn’t have a dog with him.
If it had been me, I’d at least have had a dog lead in my hand and I would have said the dog ran away and I was anxiously looking for him. And I was scared to go home because how was I going to tell the family I’d lost their beloved dog?
On the other hand, some people kept strictly to the ‘confinamiento’ orders. My back balcony and kitchen look out over the patios of other blocks of flats and one couple in their 40s took two walks every day along the length of their longish rectangular patio, combining it with a walk round the flat.
One of their outings coincided with my afternoon break for a cup of tea so I was well aware of their daily routine. The woman never walked for less than 30 minutes and on at least one occasion it started at 4.30pm and finished an hour later. Perhaps she had missed her morning walk that day.
The woman obviously knew a thing or two about the psychology of confinement — her twice daily patio walks proved that, but there was something else that was even more significant: on every walk she wore different clothes. It was simple clothing: jeans, trousers, T-shirts, blouses, skirts, dresses. But always a different combination for her morning and afternoon walks. That kind of will power and determination is most admirable.
I could have walked up and down three fights of stairs or used the terrace roof for exercise but I did neither because I was going to the Grup Serra offices three times a week to leave pendrives at the reception desk and on the other four days I shopped at nearby supermarkets.
My ‘confinamiento’ was easy-peasy because it wasn’t much different from my usual routine — going to the office every day to read the newspapers for an hour or two and then going home to write and read for the rest of the day. The ‘confinamiento’ gave me more time at home for weeding out my files, which I started some time ago.
I have never had enough shelf space for my books and for decades I have been stacking books in a rather deep built-in wardrobe that is now filled from top to bottom with hundreds of books.
As I cannot write and read all day long, I decided to go through the books mainly to see just what I had in there. Well, it turned out to be a lovely voyage of discovery and a delightful way to pass the time.
It is a slow process: when I come across a familiar book I look through it to glance at passages I remember fondly, and if it’s a book I haven’t read (and there are many) then I flick through pages reading fragments of dialogue or the first few paragraphs of a chapter.
A few weeks ago I read an article on Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer who specialised in features on some of the characters who made up Manhattan low life in the 1930s and 40s. Some of these articles appeared in his now famous book McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. I knew I had a Penguin edition and I was looking forward to finding it and getting reacquainted with Mitchell, whom I first read when I was 16. He was the kind of journalist I wanted be (and never was) with a lucid style that made for easy reading.
I haven’t found the Penguin edition yet but I did come across an American first edition I didn’t even know about. That really made my day. I can’t imagine how I forgot a McSorley’s first edition was there. There are 20 articles in the book and I’ve read two, so I’ve still got 18 to go. I’m limiting myself to one per day.
I am now half way through the piles of books and apart from McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, I have discovered 226 first editions I didn’t know were there, all of them by well-known authors. In the old days I bought secondhand books by British and American writers I wanted to read. At that time I wasn’t interested in first editions. Nowadays I am.