Word Stories: Lockdown

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at the origin of the words ‘lockdown’ and ‘covid 19.

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Hello and welcome to the English with Stephen podcast. My name’s Stephen Greene and today I have a Word Story for you. If you are new to this podcast, then first of all thank you for joining us. Secondly, half of the podcasts are about learning strategies, that is, what good learners do to learn English. The other half of the episodes, and this is one of them, are stories about the history and origin of important words.

And today’s word must be one of the most important words of the year 2020!

How has your 2020 been? It has certainly been a difficult year for many people. Climate crises, political problems, and, of course, Covid 19 have affected all of us to some degree.

And so, as we approach the end of 2020, I thought we could look at a word that will probably come to define the year.

That word is ‘lockdown’.

And the reason for the lockdown? Keep listening to the very end for the meaning of Covid 19.

After this short musical interlude.

One of the results of lockdown has been an increasing use of the internet for education. All of the classes I give are online, and this is going to continue even after the end of the Coronavirus. If you would like to have classes with me, you can get more information in my site EnglishwithStephen.com. On that site, you can also find a transcript for this episode as well as links to all my social media, including my new Youtube channel.

And now back to our main story, the origin of lockdown. But don’t forget we will also have the meaning of Covid 19 right at the end of this episode.

The word is made up of two parts, ‘lock’ and ‘down’. So I thought we could look at the two parts before bringing them back together again.

‘Lock’, originally, comes from old German. It meant either a barrier which would enclose or trap something, or the action of closing a hole. It is easy to see the similarity to the modern use in English of ‘lock’, as in something you use to keep a door closed.

But it is also from this idea of creating an enclosure that we get the word ‘lock’ when used for canals. I will link to a picture of a canal lock on my site EnglishwithStephen.com so you can see them, but basically, a canal lock is a series of pools where water can be controlled so a boat can go either up or downhill easily.

List of locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal - Wikipedia

Traditionally, a lock was a piece of metal that you could slide over a door and the wall to make sure the door would not open. On an old-style gun, there was a piece of metal that would slide to fix the bullet in place, so this was called a lock as well. Indeed, it is from this that we get the expression ‘lock, stock and barrel’ to signify that something is totally complete.

The word ‘down’ also comes from old German, where it originally meant a hill. In the south of England, there is a place called ‘the Downs’, which are actually quite high. The reason the area is called the downs is that it is a series of hills.

The word ‘dunes’ also comes from this original meaning. Last year, before any lockdowns, I went to the beach in Florianopolis in the south of Brazil. They have lots of sand dunes there and we could go surfing down the dunes. Great times!

Over time, down acquired its modern meaning, as in the opposite of ‘up’, through the idea of going down the hill.

A common place where we see ‘down’ is in phrasal verbs. Now, I know that phrasal verbs actively scare a lot of people, and I understand why. They confuse EVERYONE, even teachers at times.

I intend to do an episode or two just on phrasal verbs in the future, but for now, it is enough to say that ‘down’ can have either a literal or a metaphorical meaning in phrasal verbs. An example of a literal meaning might be ‘burn down’, as in ‘the house burned down’.

When it is metaphorical it can mean a lack of interest or excitement, as in ‘calm down’. Alternatively, it can refer to the end of something, like ‘die down’ as in the ‘the wind died down’. Or, it can show a power relationship, like ‘put down’ as in ‘the rebellion was put down’.

The other thing to say about phrasal verbs is don’t worry about them. If they are important, you will learn them. If they are not common, you won’t need to learn them.

So anyway, we have our word ‘lock’ and we have the word ‘down’. Both of them are very old words and come to English from Old Germanic. So when did they first appear together?

Surprisingly, the first recorded use of ‘lockdown’ isn’t until the mid-1800s, and it was associated with freedom of movement, rather than the current restrictions on movement. A ‘lockdown’ was a piece of wood that could be used to connect two or more boats so that they could go down a river together. These boats were usually used to transport big pieces of wood from forests to cities or ports.

It is not until the 1970s that ‘lockdown’ assumes the idea of restricting movement. It was first used in this sense in the prison system in the USA. If the prison guards wanted everyone to stay in their cells, they would institute a ‘lockdown’, that is, everyone would be locked into their cells and all movement was prohibited.

That is nearly all from me today. Coming up is the meaning of Covid 19, but please remember that if you would like to have classes with me, or take advantage of all the free stuff I put online for students, then come to my site EnglishwithStephen.com to find contact information and links to all my social media.

And finally, the meaning of Covid 19. The first two letters ‘CO’ refer to ‘corona’ which is Latin for ‘crown’. The word can also be used to describe a solar corona, which happens when the moon moves in front of the sun during an eclipse. When this happens there is a glow, or halo, around the moon, and this is the corona. Well, the scientists who first found this type of virus thought it looked like a solar corona, and so gave them the name coronaviruses.

So, the ‘CO’ means corona. The next two letters ‘VI’ means ‘virus’. And the ‘D’ means ‘disease’. Finally, the number ‘19’ refers to the year the coronavirus was first discovered, in this case, 2019. And so there you go, Covid 19 means Corona Virus Disease 2019.

Stay safe everyone!

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