The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, April 17, 2020


I've mostly been avoiding getting caught up in commenting on the language of the current coronavirus crisis, although I've enjoyed reading posts by the likes of Leo Selivan and Prof Susan Hunston on different aspects of what's going on linguistically. One new usage that does seem to have struck a chord with me though and which I couldn't resist investigating is hibernate.

There's been a lot of talk about businesses hibernating, i.e. stopping work temporarily and going into a kind of suspended animation, with workplaces closed and employees furloughed, keeping costs at a minimum and hoping to wake up and spring back to life when all this is over. The choice of the word hibernation piqued my interest on a couple of levels.

A natural pause
I think for most people, the idea of hibernation probably conjures up images of cute sleeping animals curled up safe and warm, waiting for spring. It's a safe, cosy sort of a word which suggests a natural pause.  

a hedgehog curled into a ball
Photo by George Kendall on Unsplash

The only direct alternative I could come up with is mothball, which has much less pleasant connotations. If a business operation is mothballed, it makes you think of something sitting musty and unused (and so prone to moths) for a long, indefinite period of time, perhaps never to be reopened.

Shifting usage
A quick corpus search (using the Timestamped JSI web corpus) shows that up until the start of this year, the collocates of hibernate were overwhelming animal-related (bears, bats, hedgehogs and squirrels), apart from a few specific references to computers which can go into 'hibernation mode', a kind of standby. However, looking at the latest data for March and April 2020, a flurry of new collocates appear:

Businesses aren't just hibernating, they are closing down.

The industry won't be able to hibernate during the pandemic without government support.

To tackle the virus, the economy must hibernate.

These are, arguably, all fairly straightforward metaphorical uses though. What's really intrigued me is the new use of hibernate as a transitive verb:

The Australian Government are seeking to hibernate businesses so they can bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic.

Spanish government "hibernates" economy to counter Covid-19

They really did do as much as they could to hibernate the economy.

the team has taken the decision to hibernate the project until the pandemic has passed

AirAsia Group is temporarily hibernating most of its fleet across the network in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.

There's quite a bit of parallel use of the noun hibernation, with some novel collocations there too:

our priority should be putting the global economy into controlled hibernation while quarantine measures are in place

It's why many car dealers are going into temporary hibernation

As cricket, along with the rest of sport, goes into enforced hibernation

with the Philippine economy put in forced hibernation

keep workers on the books for a hibernation period during the pandemic

The whole hibernation strategy is built to buy time for that recovery to happen

It'll be interesting to see which new words come into use when the global economy starts to wake up, scratch itself and emerge from hibernation. I suspect the metaphor may get extended.

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