Aussie Life

Aussie Language

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

14 August 2021

9:00 AM

In December the various dictionaries will announce their choice for the Word of the Year title. For a while I thought the honour might fall on ‘vaccine hesitancy’ but it is becoming increasingly clear there is only one possible choice for the WOTY gong: ‘lockdown’. That’s the one word that has dominated Australia in 2021. If it doesn’t win I shall make an appeal against the judges’ decision. And once we understand the linguistic history of ‘lockdown’ we will understand how this one word has changed the relationship between governments and people—perhaps permanently.

It was born in the American timber industry (c.1832) as the name for the piece of timber that held logs together to raft downstream from the logging site to the mill. But it took on a new meaning in 1973 when there was a riot at a prison in Fresno, California, and the governor chose this logging word to describe his response—he confined all prisoners to their cells and called it a ‘lockdown’. Since then the word has mainly (but not exclusively) been used of the treatment of prisoners during a disturbance. So when citizens feel like prisoners in their own homes during one of our pandemic ‘lockdowns’ they have the meaning of the word exactly right.

But it gets worse. When the disturbance in a prison was over, and the ‘lockdown’ was ended, the prisoners released from permanent confinement in their cells were still prisoners. The parallel is that citizens released from home confinement by their governments now have a new relationship with those in power—they are still prisoners allowed freedom but on sufferance of Dan or Gladys or whoever. We are living in a new world.

Cunning, manipulative and deceitful politicians have long been called ‘Machiavellian’. The word, as you know, captures the political philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). His advice on how to govern and to make a populace submissive is found in his classic The Prince (written, we think, around 1513 and finally published in 1532). He was a senior official of the Florentine republic after the Medici family was expelled and the republic restored. He witnessed first-hand the brutal efficiency of the Borgias in extending their power. His advice to the rulers (the ‘princes’) of his day was ‘it is much safer to be feared than loved’.

In other words, Niccolò was the inventor of ‘the politics of fear’—the game currently being played by state premiers.

The concept of ‘the politics of fear’ was refined by US President Richard Nixon who said, ‘the people react to fear not love’. Nixon is said to have based both his presidential campaigns on that notion. And that Nixonian variation on Machiavelli—of making the people so afraid that they will vote for you to rescue them—appears to have worked in state elections in Queensland and WA.

When Gladys Berejiklian says, ‘this is the scariest time our state has been though’ and goes on to declare a national emergency she is clearly trying to frighten us. When Dan Andrews declares that ‘Sydney is on fire’ with the Delta variant and needs a ‘ring of steel’ locked around it he is trying to terrify the whole country. Exactly like medieval princelings.

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