This week I am going to say a few words about words. Words that have been overused and misused during the coronavirus crisis to the extent that I tremble whenever I hear them. It won’t help get us through the coming years but it will do me good.
The first is unprecedented. No, I don’t mean it’s never happened before; that’s the first word. Almost every news item, particularly early in the pandemic and latterly when companies are justifying laying off a large percentage of their workers, it is used as an excuse for whatever is being suggested. It’s a catchall word which means that the speaker doesn’t have to supply any other explanation. Why didn’t the government have enough PPE? The unprecedented pandemic. Why is Airbus laying off a quarter of its workforce? The unprecedented economic crisis. Using the term, unprecedented, is the equivalent of throwing our hands up in defeat and doing nothing.
The thing is that the pandemic is not unprecedented. We have had pandemics before and warnings of them repeatedly in the last twenty years. Plans were even made to deal with them which governments failed to implement. Similarly there have been economic crashes before and while this one is huge, some economists have been warning of the failure of the world economy, particularly because of climate change, for a long time. All those billionaires out there who are so bright to have been able to make their fortunes in the first place should surely have been able to plan what to do in the event of a catastrophe. Perhaps they are, and their answer is to let the rest of us go to hell.
My second word is actually the one I have grown to fear the most recently and it isn’t necessarily COVID related. It is “potentially”. Potential is good. It has a scientific meaning which most people don’t understand but otherwise implies a capability which may be latent i.e. hidden. Writing tutors always say we should cut the adverbs and potentially is one that should be disposed of. It is used for any action or effect that could, should or may happen and is usually unnecessary. It is just added for emphasis or by reporters as a spacing word like other people use “fuck”. “A second COVID spike could potentially occur” No, it could occur, that’s all. It is used so often these days, that I cringe whenever I hear it.
The last one, for today, is a word that has become popular as the lockdown has eased, used by government spokespeople (actually almost always spokesmen) and especially the PM. It is “bubble”. We have been told that we can form a bubble with another household. Primary schools were told to form bubbles of up to fifteen pupils. Now the great plan for getting all schools back to full attendance in September is to form year group bubbles. That could be two to three hundred students in each bubble in large secondary schools. Apparently within the bubble students won’t have to social distance. That gets the government out of the problem that there isn’t room in classrooms for 30 pupils to be 2m or even 1m apart all the time. How the bubbles move around the school or manage at the beginning and end of the day or at break time and lunch time, I haven’t the foggiest idea and neither I imagine do headteachers. But the talk of bubbles ignores their properties. There are unstable. One puff or prick and they pop. Their contents are dispersed over everyone nearby. It is another example of this government’s delight in empty slogans and lack of any idea of what to do.
Time for some more words, carefully chosen ones put in a pleasing order. At least I hope so. This week’s writing topic was “Freedom”. The prompt was the increasing liberation from lockdown. But I didn’t want to do that. The word tickled at my memory. Wasn’t one of the American spacecraft called Freedom? It was, and here is the story of it. I wanted to make it a bit more SFfy and spiritual but I didn;t have the time and it didn;t turn out quite like that. So, this is it.
The roar of the Redstone rocket ceased. Just two minutes and twenty seconds from launch and now he was coasting into space at over five thousand miles per hour. But he had no view enclosed in his tin can. There were no windows in this Mercury capsule. Two seconds later and a clunk signalled that the escape tower had been jettisoned. Another two seconds and another lurch. The craft’s own rockets gave him an extra kick pushing away him from the spent Redstone. Now he could peer through the eyepiece of the periscope and see the curve of the earth, the blackness of space above and the brilliant white of the cloud below.
The craft had its own rattles and buzzes and the thinning air still roared past, so it wasn’t a silent flight. A few more seconds and the capsule rotated automatically. Weightless, he was soaring into space bottom first but at least the heat shield was correctly aligned for re-entry. There was still over two minutes before he would reach the peak of his journey and there were things to do.
Shepard was the second person in space. Unlike Gagarin he was not going to reach orbit but merely loop beyond the atmosphere before falling into the Atlantic Ocean. Nevertheless, he could do something that Gagarin was unable to do. The Russian had been little more than luggage on his flight, with no control over his craft’s path. Now Shepard was officially in space, more than sixty miles above the surface, he operated the manual controls, giving short bursts to the thrusters. He could alter the orientation of his capsule, rotate left-right, tip up-down, roll clockwise-anticlockwise. He was the first space pilot, free of earth’s gravity – for a few minutes. Back on automatic control the capsule settled into the correct attitude for the remaining period of freefall.
He peered through the periscope, seeing through the clouds to the American continent and the islands of the Caribbean, but was unable to distinguish the great cities of the eastern seaboard. Then the retrorockets fired. The capsule slowed a little and dropped more steeply. The periscope retracted and now he was enclosed again within his tiny craft. The thickening air caught the capsule, slowing it still more but heating up. The exterior of the heat shield under his seat began to glow red hot and burn away. The g forces built, briefly making him eleven times his normal weight. He didn’t black out.
The air roared, the capsule shook, and slowed. On time, the parachute opened and he fell more slowly towards the ocean. Freedom 7 was back on Earth.