The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Easing out of lockdown

Like others, I've been keeping an eye on the language being used to describe the coronavirus pandemic and its effects. Recently, as infection rates have started to drop in the UK and other countries, a word that's particularly struck me is the verb 'ease', not just because it's increased massively in frequency – which it has* – but because of the way people are riffing on it.

It's mostly being used in its core sense as a verb either transitively meaning "to reduce the severity of something" or intransitively meaning "to become less severe". In both cases, the collocations are fairly predictable. Looking at the data from the Timestamped JSI Web Corpus (a fairly international spread of web data) just for May 2020, top collocates included:

ease + restrictions/lockdown/measures/rules
restrictions/lockdown/measures/rules + ease
the pandemic/crisis/situation + ease
the government/country + ease + sth
gradually/slowly/partially + ease

What I find more interesting is the number of particles appearing after the verb and the ways in which they're being used (sorry, been a bit hyper-aware of phrasal verbs lately!).  If you check most learner's dictionaries, you'll find phrasal verb entries for ease up and ease off, both with a similar meaning to the main verb, perhaps mentioning slowing down or becoming less strong. Almost universally though, they're shown as intransitive, so something or someone eases up/off. This use does come up in the latest data:

We're going to wait for restrictions to ease up a bit more.
… as the restrictions start easing off a touch

However, there also seem to be a substantial number of transitive uses:

Many shops have eased up restrictions on buying items
it was not yet time to ease up lockdown
… to know that it is safe to ease up current social-distancing rules

Poor levels of testing mean easing off the lockdown restrictions is very unwise
… after government eased off some of the Covid-19 related restrictions.
[Countries] began to re-open their economies and ease off lockdown measures.

Another interesting pattern to appear is to ease someone out of something. This seems to combine the meaning of something becoming less severe with the usually separate sense of moving slowly and carefully.

the Prime Minister's 'roadmap' for easing Britain out of the lockdown.
the slow process of easing France out of lockdown.
an action plan to ease the country out of its current restrictive measures
… as we ease our way out of the crisis

Some language commentators have already highlighted a tendency 'recently' for English speakers to add particles to verbs with little change of meaning (reduce down, order up, change up). It seems to me that this creation of new phrasal verbs is largely about adding emphasis. I won't get into the topic of 'semantic bleaching' here in detail, but it's the concept that over time, words start to lose their impact and no longer have the strength of meaning they once had, so as speakers, we're constantly trying to up the ante. It's no longer enough to say that something was a catastrophe, for example, which used to describe the worst possible situation, we now have to emphasize the severity by talking about an absolute or complete or utter catastrophe … informally, we'd even talk about a bit of a catastrophe. Anyway, you get the idea. My feeling is a similar thing's going on with the adding of particles to verbs just to add a bit more emphasis.

Personally, ever the descriptivist, I don't see it as a particularly good or bad trend. Part of me loves the flexibility and creativity of language use. With my ELT hat on though, I'm not sure our learners really need more phrasal verbs!

* In the Timestamped JSI Web Corpus data just for May 2020, the verb ease has a frequency of 84.88 instances per million words, compared with just 24.07 per million in the larger corpus from 2014-2020.

Labels: , , , ,


Blogger Bristol Homestay Tuition said...

Very interesting observations, Julie. I like the idea of linguistic 'bleaching' very much. I also wonder if adding particles to verbs to make phrasal verbs is also something to do with the rhythmic nature of English, making stress patterns more 'musical'? For example, I often have to explain to my students that when my friends ask them 'Whereabout(s) are you from?', it means EXACTLY the same as 'Where are you from?'. Why do people add 'about(s)' to the 'where'? Do you have any thoughts on this?

10:40 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Yes, Lucy, it may be that the extra particles are in part about the rhythm. I think it's also about register - so single-word verbs tend to be more formal whereas phrasal verbs are more informal. "Restrictions are easing." sounds like a rather formal, official statement or something from an academic article - whereas "Restrictions are easing off." feels slightly more informal, less abrupt.
As for the 'where/whereabouts' distinction - I think 'whereabouts' can sometimes be more specific, so imagine the conversation:
A: "Where are you from?"
B: "Well, I grew up in Kent."
A: "Oh really, whereabouts?" (= specifically which area/town?)
But like all language, a lot comes down to idiolect or personal preference. We all have words/structures we tend to use more than others based on all our experiences and influences. Those choices don't always indicate a difference in meaning.

11:17 am  

Post a comment

<< Home