Mind your language

Why must we ‘live with’ coronavirus?

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

T.S. Eliot adopted a method of criticism that I am not aware of any other writer using: he imagined what it would be like to live with the bust of a poet. A bust of Byron on one’s desk would be impossible, with ‘that pudgy face suggesting a tendency to corpulence, that weakly sensual mouth, that restless triviality of expression’. Sir Walter Scott presented a different prospect: ‘Were one a person who liked to have busts about, a bust of Scott would be something one could live with.’

These days we are urged by some to learn to live with the coronavirus. It’s not quite a bust of Byron, but nor is it a spouse or ‘partner’.

Living with is a phrasal verb first applied, in the 17th century, to spouses. From there it was a short step to living with someone as though a spouse. In Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet is represented as being ‘more alive to the disgrace which her want of new clothes must reflect on her daughter’s nuptials, than to any sense of shame at her eloping and living with Wickham a fortnight before they took place’.

This idea of living with the coronavirus at large is also different from living with it as the disease Covid-19 in one’s own airways.

In the sense of having a disease, living with seems to be a politically correct formulation that avoids saying suffering from.‘The number of people living with dementia is set to rise to one million by 2025,’ said someone from the Alzheimer’s Society to the Sun last month. Another tabloid went as far as to talk of ‘helping those who are living with obesity’. Almost as bad as living with a bust of Byron.

A note of ambiguity enters here. The Guardianrecently referred to living with a mentally unwell family member. The member is not himself a disease. And what of ‘programmes for children and their families living with a serious illness’? There it must be the children with the illness, and the families living with them — and it, vicariously.

A final ambiguity has been introduced by constantly referring to people dying with coronavirus. Did they die of it? No one can say.

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