The twenty-third of March marks the anniversary of the first UK lockdown, that fateful Monday evening when the PM announced drastic measures to halt the spread of COVID-19. On social media there is talk of a lockdownversary, a portmanteau word which shows how elastic English is. Most suffixes are relatively productive and create many new words – take -ware, for example. In contrast, –versary, a direct echo of the Latin word-element versārius, appears only in anniversary and adversary among words we currently use.
At that historic tail end of March last year, many found themselves confined to the house with surplus time on their hands. On the basis that ‘every cloud has a silver lining’, the media were quick to suggest ways in which lockdownees could benefit. From calligraphy to crocheting, suggestions came thick and fast. National Treasure and Artist to the Nation, Grayson Perry, hosted a TV series which invited the public to submit their own works. If artistic endeavour was not up your street, you could always hone your baking skills via online masterclasses. Baking bread became such a national obsession that there was a rush on flour.
There’s a backstory to flour. Essentially, flour is a flower; in Middle English they were one and the same loanword from French, spelt variously flur(e), floure, flowre. The finest ground grain was considered ‘the flower’, that is, the very best part or example of something. Talking of flowers, a staggering eight million people have taken up gardening for the first time in the last year, as is evidenced weekly by the many callers to the BBC’s Gardeners’ Question Time who are novices. Gardening is a classic example of English creating nouns denoting activities from the related verbs by adding the -ing suffix (compare knit/knitting, crochet/crocheting, etc.). In contrast, a trend in hobby names takes a noun and adds -ing to it. Especially in American usage, that produces new words such as thrifting, journal(l)ing and scrapbooking.
A recent survey of 1,000 UK women showed more than half had started a new hobby during lockdown. Most were indoor hobbies, such as calligraphy. That –graphy suffix is easily guessed at as being connected with the act of writing (think autograph, biography, etc.), but what about the calli– prefix? It denotes beauty, from the Classical Greek kallos (κάλλος, meaning ‘beauty’), as seen in words like calligramme or callisthenics. That slightly retro tag callisthenics, a word dating back to the early nineteenth century for ‘light exercise promoting general fitness’, aptly describes the Joe Wicks workouts that millions of people watch(ed) during lockdown.
Many men will have practised their hobbies in glorious isolation in their man caves, a word that’s been around since the early 1990s. More recent is the female equivalent, the she-shed. Not unexpectedly, given that many of us are spending more time at home, cooking and gardening were the most popular hobbies the women surveyed said they aimed to enhance. Hobby, incidentally, is an English word that went viral before viral was invented. It is used in Greek, German, Russian, Czech, Turkish, and the many other languages you will see if you scroll to the bottom of the Collins entry. Hobby itself originally referred to a small horse and is a pet name for the forename Robin, as is Dobbin.
In a recent episode of the BBC’s topical news programme Broadcasting House, a couple of guests outed themselves to join Dawn French as self-confessed lockdown Lego™ addicts. And where does Lego get its name? Literally, it means ‘play well’: it is a respelling and play on words of the Danish leg godt, leg being the imperative of the verb at lege (‘to play’), and godt, the adverb meaning ‘well’. English too used to have the ‘same’ verb, ‘to lake’, meaning ‘to play’, but it dropped out of use centuries ago. And while we’re in Scandinavia, one hobby that has taken off in that part of the world in recent years is plogging, picking up litter while jogging – an activity beneficial to one’s body and to the environment.
The skill 20 per cent of women surveyed said they wanted to acquire is a new language. In that connection, the language platform Duolingo’s 2020 report noted that new users of its site after lockdown were up 132 per cent in the UK and over 50 per cent in the US. It also revealed that the most assiduous learners worldwide are based in Germany and Japan, and that Asian languages in particular have seen a surge in interest over the past twelve months.
My lockdown hobbies – and pleasures – have been writing these blogs, cooking new recipes, and, most time-consuming of all, learning Danish. Learning a language in earnest if you are, like me, not in the flower of your youth is not to be undertaken lightly. Malcolm Gladwell’s much-hyped 10,000 rule could apply with a vengeance: ‘you need to have practiced, to have apprenticed, for 10,000 hours before you get good.’ I want to ‘get good’, but at two hours per day, that makes…5,000 days, or close to 14 years. Crikey! I’d better up my hours. No more leg (‘play’) for me. Vi snakkes ved senere. Which means ‘Laters!’
By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.