Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, governments around the world enforced lockdown measures in an attempt to keep the virus at bay. The more light there is at the end of the tunnel, the more our thoughts turn to what the following phase of the epidemic might look like. I will reserve comment on whether or not these decrees were hastily declared and its implications for the aftermath, and instead look at the linguistics of what might happen next: deconfinement or reopening.
If the opposite of confinement is déconfinement, I want to analyse the opposite of the English word lockdown and what ramifications this has. The French neologism is linguistically simple, whereas the search for an English equivalent is more complex. One represents an invitation to discuss and debate a definition, while the other could be an attempt to mollify and reassure for more sinister purposes.
In France, the word confinement was used to talk about the orders imposed by the government. Just like the English equivalent lockdown, it has connotations of lack of movement, physical restrictions and prison protocol. The words differ, however, in their construction: ‘confinement’ is from the Latin words ‘cum’ and ‘finis’, the former meaning ‘together’ and the latter being a noun that refers to physical boundaries. We can say that confinement means ‘together in designated boundaries’. It has a long history, with the meaning of property dating back to the 15th century and the meaning of imprisonment to the 16th century. On the other hand, the English ‘lockdown’ dates only from the end of the 19th century and when new words are invented, new forces are at play.
Déconfinement is a neologism, a word recently created to talk about the phenomenon. Curiously, it was shunned by the French President Emmanuel Macron, well-known for his love of words, who choose to talk about ‘la fin du confinement’, purposefully avoiding the new term. But this recently coined moniker might offer us the space to debate and discuss our hopes and fears of our post-COVID-19 world: what does déconfinement look like?
The prefix ‘de’, again of Latin origin like the majority of the French language, means a ‘contrary or inverse action or state’. It is a very handy prefix to talk about what will happen next, or as Carrie Chappell put it: ‘a simple & old prefix turns over the rock of the word we’ve all been living under.’ And it does what the English equivalent fails to do – suggest that the world after the confinement will not be the same.
The English press wants to talk about ‘reopening’ and a ‘return to normal’, which are comforting terms: the prefix ‘re’, a Latin root, suggests homecoming, or the way things were before the war. This could be because the Anglo-Saxon mindset is in the markets, supply and demand and economic drive, all of which have been taken away with quarantine and the cracks are beginning to show. It is in their interests to return to the way things were because, you know, money.
This is a mirage: air travel is in the worst state its ever been in since the Wright brothers, children are learning to associate human contact with danger and other canaries are dying too. In short, we will not return to the days of rose and wine, but one in which market forces operate with increasingly desperate ferocity and the human touch, in every sense, will be a thing of the past, to be reminisced about decades later. The English language once again will relive its Orwellian definition of propaganda: by telling people its a return, not a change, we will more willingly acquiesce in the new status quo.
We must remember that the opposite of lockdown is not return; it is departure, as scary and intimidating as all things unknown are. The Latin-based term at least acknowledges this by providing us a new word to define and debate, even though un monde déconfiné has the hallmarks of a dystopian future. The English term of ‘reopening’ is laggard and easy, in the same way that lockdown, when it means prison, is often the simplest way of dealing with a problem. But instead of actually trying to solve the root, it merely brushes it under the rug – out of sight, out of mind.
However, the media is playing a dangerous game in propagating a word that is charged with penal history: it reenforces the authority that States and market forces have over our lives. Furthermore, the next phase of this epidemic cannot and will not be as easy as mandating stay-at-home orders. As Pascal’s famous phrase says, “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” And currently an awful lot of people are yearning to leave their room.