Shielding – a subtle shift in meaning

If you look up the verb “shield” in the dictionary, you’ll find it has a purely transitive meaning: “to protect someone or something”. It’s something you do to or for someone else. 

You can do it to yourself, especially a part of yourself, but you’d generally make this explicit: “I’m shielding my eyes from the sun”. The verb is still transitive, with a subject and an object. If someone else was protecting you, you might use the passive and say you were “being shielded”.

The title of the government’s most recent COVID advice, revised overnight, is: “Guidance on shielding and protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19”.[i] The reference to “shielding and protecting” could still be read as fully transitive, in line with the dictionary definition – how to shield and protect the vulnerable. But as soon as we read further, into the guidance itself, there’s a subtle shift: “People who are shielding remain vulnerable…”. 

What’s happened here? This is obviously not directed at people who are shielding others, but at the people who need protection. The inference must be that they’re supposed to do it themselves. “Shielding” now means protecting yourself, or perhaps – if you’re lucky – being shielded by your close family. 

This isn’t just a figure of speech used by the government. It’s been adopted as part of the COVID vocabulary within Britain (or at least England), and is widely used by those who for reasons of age or health need special protection from the virus. “I’m shielding” means “I’m taking special measures to keep myself safe”. 

The virus has transformed “shield” into an intransitive verb. Linguists might call it a “middle voice”: the action is directed onto the subject itself. Some languages have a special form or marker to show this explicitly. There’s no such marker in English, but it is a recognised process, and the verbs that can do it are known as “labile” (for example “cook”, as in “the potatoes are cooking”).

So the government guidance is about shielding yourself. (But note there’s no explicit reflexive “-self” pronoun – perhaps that might draw attention rather too overtly to the fact that you’re on your own?) Noone is protecting you, unless you have close family living with you. 

There is of course some support within local communities. I’ve been particularly impressed by “Nunhead Knocks” in South-East London, where one of my family is an active member. 

But as far as the government is concerned, the vulnerable are on their own, taking their own precautions to shield and protect themselves. And this should come as no surprise, as the reporting of journalists such as Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall and the number-crunching of the FT’s Chris Giles have revealed the pitiful situation in our care homes.

Taking it further – shielding from the government 

I was chatting online with my wise daughter last night about the challenges of the current period – not so much the virus itself as the way the government has been handling it, and the psychological impact that has. She introduced the idea of “shielding” (in the sense I’ve discussed above) from the government. 

So my next challenge is to combine physical shielding from the virus with psychological shielding from the government. 

[i] I’m lucky enough not to fall within this category, but – with my husband’s help – I’ve been largely keeping to the stricter guidance, due to medication I’m taking for I’m taking for Graves’ disease

The picture featured at the top of this blog is a shield bug – Bishop’s mitre – taken in our garden by the husband who’s helping to shield me/helping me to shield.

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