Queen invokes Blitz spirit in message of hope

Royal call to arms: Last night was only the fifth time the Queen has made a special address to the nation.

Can war metaphors be a mixed blessing? The Queen, last night, movingly evoked memories of World War Two. But many politicians worldwide have been less subtle in their choice of words.

Hundreds were dying of Covid-19 every day. The sun shone, but central London was deserted. The nation needed to hear from its monarch.

A single cameraman, wearing protective equipment, was allowed in the room.

In front of the lens, Queen Elizabeth II delivered a very personal message: “I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. That the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve, and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country.”

It was a deliberate nod to the wartime spirit of the 1940s, when Britain came together to withstand the Blitz and the threat of Nazi invasion.

Politicians and newspapers have used war metaphors unsparingly in recent weeks. A headline from the Sun ran: “Army on standby as Boris declares war on coronavirus with battle plan to kill the deadly virus”.

Such evocative language is not unusual. Studies suggest that one word in every 25 we use is a metaphor. But when spoken by those in power, they are more than just expressions.

The government wants people to take the threat of the coronavirus seriously and to unite in the face of a common enemy. The metaphor of war is a linguistic shortcut to explain that thinking.

But, in a crisis that demands social distancing, the rhetoric of combat might be counter-productive. Speaking to the Atlantic magazine, Veronika Koller, a linguist at Lancaster University, said, “War metaphors call for mobilisation, for action, for doing something.”

Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins described the use of such military language as a way to “heighten panic and win obedience to authority”.

Indeed, as other experts have pointed out, hoarding toilet roll and blaming minority groups for the spread of the virus embodies the sort of siege mentality seen in times of conflict.

Instead, to overcome the coronavirus, medical experts say it is isolation and cooperation – not armies and wartime thoughts that we need.

Furthermore, research has shown that war metaphors applied to the “fight” against cancer often leave patients feeling guilty if their symptoms do not improve.

Of course, war is not the only possible image for the virus. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, described infection as falling “dominoes” while the queen of Denmark compared the virus to a “dangerous guest”.

So, can war metaphors be a mixed blessing?

Coronavirus belli

Yes, such imagery is unhelpful. It can provoke fear which usually leads to poor decision-making, such as stockpiling. Furthermore, war suggests activity when the most effective action to deal with this virus is, in fact, doing as little as possible. The bravery involved in deciding not to sunbathe should not be compared with getting into a Spitfire during the Battle of Britain.

No, metaphors are immensely powerful ways of simplifying a complex and frightening reality. The language of war does two big things. First, it allows people to feel part of the struggle during a time of inaction. Just by sitting at home and binging on Netflix, they can be part of the resistance. Second, it completely suspends normal life and allows leaders to invent emergency rules – hugely useful for hard-pressed governments.

You Decide

  1. Choose your own metaphor. A battle? A storm? A bad dream? How would you describe the coronavirus emergency?
  2. Do you think that people today are as tough as they were 100 years ago?

Activities

  1. Using an image from your own favourite virus metaphor and design a poster that aims to cheer people up.
  2. Compare the speech by Winston Churchill (in the Expert Links) with last night’s speech by the Queen. Pick your favourite sentence from each delivery and memorise them.

Some People Say...

“War is what happens when language fails.”

Margaret Atwood, poet and writer, in her novel The Robber Bride

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
As the zoologist and historian Matthew Cobb writes in his new book, The Idea of the Brain, it is widely agreed that metaphors allow “insight and discovery”, but are “inevitably partial” and “there will come a point when the understanding they allow will be outweighed by the limits they impose”.
What do we not know?
The heart of the debate is around the claim by some linguists that metaphors are, in fact, the fundamental building blocks of thought – that we don’t simply talk or write with metaphors – we also think with them. It’s a view fiercely contested by other linguists who argue that language – not just metaphor – is the basis of thought.

Word Watch

Protective equipment
Such as a mask and gloves. You will also see a lot being written about PPE (personal protective equipment): gloves, gown, mask, and eye protection.
Blitz
The German word for “lightning”, used to describe the period of World War Two when the Nazi air force continually bombarded Britain – killing 32,000 civilians.
Unsparingly
Unmercifully, severely.
Linguistic
Linguistics is the study of how humans use words and how different languages compare. It includes thinking about the form, meaning, and context of words.
Siege mentality
A state of mind in which a person believes that he or she is being constantly oppressed or attacked.
Spitfire
A British single-seat fighter aircraft used by the Royal Air Force and other Allied countries before, during, and after WW2.

Subjects

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