‘A fire raging’: Why fire metaphors work well for Covid-19

Covid-19 and metaphors

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, metaphors have been widely used, reflected upon and critiqued as a tool for communicating about the virus and its consequences. There are good reasons for this.

Metaphors involve talking and thinking about one thing in terms of another, on the basis of perceived similarities or correspondences between them. As such, we use them to make sense of and communicate about new, complex, abstract and sensitive experiences in terms of more familiar, simpler and intersubjectively accessible ones. For example, the virus has been described as an enemy to be defeated, a mugger to be wrestled to the ground, a tsunami on health services, a marathon to be endured, and even glitter in soft furnishings after a party.

Metaphors can become controversial because they have framing effects: each metaphor highlights some aspects of the topic and backgrounds others, and therefore influences people’s reasoning, evaluations and emotions in particular ways, as many experimental studies have shown. For example, war metaphors, which were widely used at the start of the pandemic, have been criticised for inappropriately personifying the virus as a malevolent opponent, creating unnecessary anxiety, dangerously legitimising authoritarian governmental measures, and implying that those to die did not fight hard enough. Research has shown that war metaphors can actually be useful in some contexts (for example, to convey the need for urgent collective effort), but they can also discourage self-limiting behaviours, such as refraining from our usual activities and just staying home.

As the weeks and months have gone by, and more and more metaphors have been adopted for different aspects of the pandemic, an international group of researchers (of which I am part) has been collecting alternatives to military metaphors from around the world, as part of the #ReframeCovid initiative. We know, from research in areas as diverse as education and healthcare, that a range of different metaphors is usually needed for complex topics, and the #ReframeCovid collective has taken the kind of non-prescriptive approach that is part of the professional ethos of researchers on language use: it aims to collect a wide variety of ‘naturally occurring’ metaphors as data for research and as potential resources for communication and thinking, but without endorsing one or more as better than the others.

Nonetheless, those of us who study metaphors for a living are regularly asked for an expert opinion about what metaphor or metaphors are most appropriate for the pandemic, and it is in fact possible to provide some answers on the basis of previous research on what makes a ‘good’ metaphor and of systematic analyses of communication about the unfolding pandemic. In this blog post, I explain how and why I got to the conclusion that fire metaphors, and specifically metaphors involving forest fires, are particularly appropriate and useful for communication about the pandemic.

Finding fire metaphors

My initial observations were based on the #ReframeCovid collection of metaphors, which, as of 30th June 2020, included five fire metaphors from five different languages (Dutch, English, Greek, Italian and Spanish) as well as visual images involving metaphorical flames or fires. In addition, I identified 37 different examples of fire metaphors for Covid-19 in the Coronavirus Corpus, which, at the time, consisted of about 400 million words of news articles in English from around the world, dating from January to June 2020.

[A little more detail for linguists: I searched for ‘coronavirus’ or ‘covid-19’ in a span five words to the left and five words to the right of ‘fire’ in the Coronavirus Corpus. That generated 696 concordance lines. I used the MIP procedure by the Pragglejaz Group to identify metaphorical uses of fire-related vocabulary. I included fire-related similes and other ‘direct’ metaphors. I excluded fire-related metaphors for topics other than Covid-19. In what follows, all English examples are from the Coronavirus Corpus, while examples in other languages are from the #ReframeCovid collection.]

What fire metaphors can do

Even out of context, forest fires are a suitable area of experience for metaphorical exploitation. They are vivid, or image-rich; they are familiar, even when not experienced directly; they have multiple elements (trees, fire-fighters, arsonists, victims, etc.); and they have strong evaluative and emotional associations.

In the specific data I have collected, fire metaphors are used flexibly and creatively for multiple purposes, particularly to:

  • convey danger and urgency;
  • distinguish between different phases of the pandemic;
  • explain how contagion happens and the role of individuals within that;
  • justify measures for reducing contagion;
  • portray the role of health workers;
  • connect the pandemic with health inequalities and other problems; and
  • outline post-pandemic futures.

Danger and urgency

Forest fires spread quickly, are hard to control and can therefore grow very large, causing irreparable damage. These characteristics can be exploited to convey the dangers posed by the coronavirus, and the need for urgent action. For example, in June 2020 a Pakistani minister described the coronavirus as ‘spreading like a fire in the jungle’ in the rural areas of the country, while the director of the Center for Infectious Disease at the University of Minnesota  talked about a ‘forest fire that may not slow down’. In a Spanish example from the #ReframeCovid collection, the coronavirus is described by an anthropologist as needing to be approached as ‘un gran fuego’ (‘a large fire’).

Different phases

The life cycle of forest fires can be exploited metaphorically to distinguish between different phases in the seriousness of the pandemic, in terms of numbers of new infections and success or failure in reducing those numbers. In April 2020, when new daily infections were increasing fast on Rhode Island, a New York Times article described it as a ‘a state where the coronavirus is a fire raging’. In contrast, in May 2020, the Irish Prime Minister combined fire and war metaphors when he stated that, in Ireland, the coronavirus was a ‘fire in retreat’ but ‘not defeated’, adding: ‘We must extinguish every spark, quench every ember.’

References to metaphorical embers are particularly useful to suggest that danger still persists even when the number of infections has substantially decreased.

How contagion happens

Explaining how contagion happens is a particular challenge in public health communication about the coronavirus: the process is not just invisible, but it also involves asymptomatic people and takes place during the most ordinary daily activities. There is also a fine balance to strike between persuading people to reduce the chance of being in danger, or being a danger to others, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, avoiding excessive blame on individuals. Here fire metaphors can be particularly useful.

In a semi-technical explanation in Medscape from late March 2020, people are trees that provide fuel to a forest fire driven by wind:

  1. Think of COVID-19 as a fire burning in a forest. All of us are trees. The R0 is the wind speed. The higher it is, the faster the fire tears through the forest. But just like a forest fire, COVID-19 needs fuel to keep going. We’re the fuel.

In other forest fire metaphorical scenarios, people are ‘kindling’, ‘sparks being thrown off’ (when infecting others) and ‘fuel’ (when becoming infected). In these cases, fire metaphors convey the dangers posed by people being in close proximity to one another, but without directly attributing blame: people are described as inanimate entities (trees, kindling, fuel) that are consumed by the fire they contribute to spread.

A variant of this metaphor, from March 2020, involves an urban fire:

  1. Think of the coronavirus pandemic as a fire ravaging our cities and towns that is spread by infected people breathing out invisible embers every time they speak, cough, or sneeze. Sneezing is the most dangerous—it spreads embers farthest—coughing second, and speaking least, though it still can spread the embers. These invisible sparks cause others to catch fire and in turn breathe out embers until we truly catch fire—and get sick.

Here the reference to ’invisible embers’ is a particularly vivid way to portray the danger posed by something as seemingly innocuous as breath.

How containment measures can help

The use of fire metaphors to explain how contagion happens often sets the scene for explaining how new infections can be stopped. The extract from Medscape above (extract 1), for example, where people are ‘trees’ and ‘fuel’, goes on to exploit the forest fire scenario to convey the effectiveness of quarantines and social distancing:

  1. A few fire lines—quarantines and social distancing measures—keep the fire from hitting all the trees.

Similarly, the metaphor where people breathe out ‘invisible embers’ (extract 2) is used to justify face masks as an effective measure against the spread of the virus:

  1. If we could just keep our embers from being sent out every time we spoke or coughed, many fewer people would catch fire. Masks help us do that. And because we don’t know for sure who’s sick, the only solution is for everyone to wear masks. This eventually benefits the wearer because fewer fires mean we’re all less likely to be burned. My mask protects you; your masks protect me.

Protecting healthcare workers

Within fire metaphors, healthcare workers are inevitably positioned as firefighters who ‘run into raging blazes’ for the sake of everyone else. This emphasizes the risks that healthcare workers run, and can therefore be used to stress the need to respect social distancing rules and/or wear face masks. For example, the description of the importance of face masks in extract 4 is followed by: ‘Plus, our firefighters would no longer be overwhelmed’.

Making health inequalities and other problems worse

Fire metaphors can be used to emphasize the additional vulnerability of people who live in cramped conditions. For examples, in June 2020 a South African commentator pointed out that the virus could spread particularly fast in informal settlements: ‘Look at how shack fires happen: you light one fire, and the whole place burns down.’

In a few cases, fire metaphors are used to suggest that the coronavirus is making existing problems or crises worse. In these cases, the metaphorical fire was already burning, and the coronavirus ‘add[s] fuel to the fire’ or ‘throws gasoline on the fire’, for example in the context of pre-existing tensions in US prisons.

The future

Fire metaphors can also be adapted to paint different pictures of a post-Covid-19 future. Italian commentator Paolo Costa includes a reference to the future in a lengthy forest fire metaphor:

  1. Non solo ci sono continuamente focolai da spegnere e, quando la sorte si accanisce, giganteschi fronti di fuoco da arginare, ma è dovere di tutti collaborare quotidianamente alla bonifica del terreno affinché scintille, inneschi, distrazioni più o meno colpevoli non provochino adesso o in futuro disastri irreparabili.

Not only are there constant outbreaks to extinguish and, when our luck gets worse, gigantic fronts of fire to control, but it is everyone’s duty to collaborate daily in the reclamation of the soil, so that sparks, triggers, and more or less guilty distractions do not cause irreparable disasters now or in the future.

Here the idea of collective responsibility for soil reclamation to prevent new fires suggests that lifestyles will have to change long-term in order to avoid future pandemics.

Ultimately though, no silver bullet

Fire metaphors are vivid, flexible and very well suited to capture different aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic. They also seem to occur across linguistic and cultural boundaries, as the #ReframeCovid collection suggests. Of course, no metaphor can cater for all aspects of something as complex and long term as a global pandemic, nor for all contingencies and audiences. We will therefore still need marathons, tsunamis, battles (in moderation) and even glitter in our metaphorical tool-kit. But fire metaphors are undoubtedly one of the most useful metaphorical tools at our disposal.

Elena Semino, 30th June 2020

 

CASS: Five more years

We are delighted to announce that CASS has been awarded £2.5 million funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Lancaster University to continue existing activities and pursue a new research programme for five more years, from April 2018 to March 2023.

The funding, which includes £750,000 from the ESRC, will be used to maximise the economic and societal impact of the research carried out in the first phase of the Centre, particularly in the areas of: Corporate Communications; Climate Change and Maritime Security; Language Development, Disorders and Environment; and Spoken Learner Language.

In addition, a new research programme will extend the facilitative and transformative power of corpus methods to the study of health (care) communication, in the following areas:

  • Language and mental health (including: communication about anxiety disorder; presentation and diagnosis of psychosis; depression in users of social media);
  • Communicating and diagnosing chronic pain;
  • Media representations of obesity;
  • English language assessment and training for medical professionals.

The Centre will also continue to create new openly accessible corpora, extend the existing programme of methodological and technological innovation, especially through #LancsBox and CQPWeb, and continue to disseminate methods and tools through the Corpus MOOC, Summer Schools and free workshops in the UK and internationally.

The new CASS team brings together 15 scholars from different disciplines at Lancaster University and two collaborating institutions: Durham University and University College London (see below).

Two postdoctoral Research Associates will also be recruited to work with the rest of the team for the next five years.

CASS Director Professor Elena Semino said: “We are absolutely delighted to have been awarded five more years of funding by the ESRC and grateful to the University for its part in supporting the Centre.

“This award will ensure that the work we have done so far achieves its full potential in terms of societal impact, and will enable us to carry out new research on communication about illness and healthcare.”

CASS is one eight established research centres awarded a total of £6.9m to continue their work under a new funding model designed to secure the long term sustainability of social science research excellence in the UK.

Watch this space for updates on the Centre’s work and the release of new tools and corpora!


The CASS team from April 2018:

Principal Investigator:
Elena Semino – Linguistics and English Language (Lancaster University)

Co-Investigators:
Andrew Hardie – Linguistics and English Language (Lancaster University)
Paul Baker – Linguistics and English Language (Lancaster University)
Vaclav Brezina – Linguistics and English Language (Lancaster University)
Dana Gablasova – Linguistics and English Language (Lancaster University)
Claire Hardaker – Linguistics and English Language (Lancaster University)
John Pill – Linguistics and English Language (Lancaster University)
Dimitrinka Atanasova – Linguistics and English Language (Lancaster University)

Basil Germond – Politics, Philosophy and Religion (Lancaster University)
Garrath Williams – Politics, Philosophy and Religion (Lancaster University)

Kate Cain – Psychology (Lancaster University)
Steve Young – Accounting and Finance (Lancaster University)

Angela Woods – English Studies and Hearing the Voice project (Durham  University)
Joanna Zakrzewska – University College London Hospitals

Collaborator:
Zsófia Demjén – UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics (University College London)

Some things I have learnt while using corpus methods to study health communication

On a dark winter afternoon in December 2011 (before CASS existed), an email from the Economic and Social Research Council informed me that they would fund the project ‘Metaphor in End of Life Care’, which I had put forward with several colleagues from Lancaster. The project involved a combination of manual analysis and corpus methods to study the metaphors used in a 1.5-million-word corpus consisting of interviews and online forum posts by people with advanced cancer, family carers and healthcare professionals. Even in the elation following that announcement, I could not remotely foresee how important that project would become in my (professional) life, and how much interest it would attract from healthcare professionals, charities, the media and the general public. That interest, I now realise, is due to two main factors. First, the topic of communication about cancer and end-of-life is important and intrinsically interesting. In particular, most people have strong feelings about the metaphors used for cancer, such as the ubiquitous but much hated ‘battle against cancer’ that is ‘lost’ by people who die of the disease. The second factor in the success of the project is even simpler: corpus methods actually make sense to people.

At the beginning of the project, I expected that it would be difficult to get audiences outside (corpus) linguistics to understand and appreciate our methods. I was wrong. I have consistently found that people generally, and healthcare professionals in particular, quickly become interested in corpus methods and appreciative of what can be learnt from them. After all, healthcare professionals are used to large-scale quantitative studies and statistical analyses, and therefore do not find corpus-based research at all alien. The dissemination of our findings has therefore been much better received than I would ever have imagined.

A paper we published in BMJ Supportive and Palliative Care has been the most read in that journal from February 2015 to January 2016. In that paper we provide evidence from our patient data of the potential negative, disempowering effects of Violence metaphors (e.g. when a patient says: ‘I feel such a failure for not winning this battle’). However, we also show that those same metaphors are motivating and empowering for some people, who proudly embrace the identity of ‘fighters’ (e.g. when another patient says: ‘cancer and the fighting of it is something to be proud of’). Our paper shows a similar pattern for Journey metaphors, which are used in preference to Violence metaphors in policy documents and guidelines on cancer and end-of-life in the UK’s National Health System (e.g. ‘my cancer journey’). In our patient data, Journey metaphors are used in positive and empowering ways by some people, and in negative and disempowering ways by others. From a healthcare professional’s point of view, this means that there is no easy one-size-fits-all approach to communication about cancer. Rather, it is essential to be sensitive to the language used by individual patients, and to adapt one’s own responses accordingly. The fact that this message has attracted so much interest is due in large part to the nature and amount of evidence that we have been able to provide by using corpus linguistic methods. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

New CASS project: Big data media analysis and the representation of urban violence in Brazil

A new project in CASS has been funded jointly by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and the Brazilian research agency CONFAP. The project will involve a collaboration between two Lancaster academics (Professors Elena Semino and Tony McEnery) and two Brazilian academics: Professor Heloísa Pedroso de Moraes Feltes (University of Caxias do Sul) and Professor Ana Cristina Pelosi (University of Santa Cruz do Sul and Federal University of Ceara). The team will employ corpus methods to investigate the linguistic representation of urban violence in Brazil.

Urban violence is a major problem in Brazil: the average citizen is affected by acts of violence, more or less directly, on a daily basis. This creates a general state of fear and insecurity among the population, but, at the same time, may promote a sense of empathy with the less privileged classes in Brazil. Urban violence is also a regular topic in daily conversations and news media, so that people’s perceptions of the nature of this phenomenon are partly mediated by discourse. In particular, daily press reports of acts of violence may affect people’s views and attitudes in ways which may or may not be consistent with the actual incidence, forms and causes of violence.

This collaborative project will investigate the linguistic representation of urban violence in Brazil by applying the methods of Corpus Linguistics to two corpora:

  1. The existing transcripts of two focus groups on living with urban violence conducted in Fortaleza, Brazil, for a total of approximately 20,000 words;
  2. A new 2-million-word corpus of news reports in the Brazilian press, to be constructed as part of the partnership.

The linguistic representation of urban violence in the two corpora will be investigated by means of the analysis of: lexical and semantic concordances, collocational patterns and key words.  A comparison will also be carried out between the two corpora, in order to identify similarities and differences with respect to what types of violence are primarily talked about and how they are linguistically represented.

The comparative analysis of the two corpora will make it possible to explore in detail the relationships between official statistics about urban violence, media representations and citizens’ views. A better understanding of these relationships can help to alleviate the consequences of urban violence on citizens’ lives, and to foster attitudes conducive to the solution of the social problems that cause the violence in the first place.

Workshop on ‘Metaphor in end of life care’ at St Joseph’s Hospice, London

On 26th September 2014, three members of the CASS-affiliated ‘Metaphor in end of life care’ project team were invited to run a workshop at St Joseph’s Hospice in London. The workshop was attended by 27 participants, including clinical staff, non-clinical staff and volunteers.

Veronika Koller (Lancaster University) introduced the project, including its background, rationale, research questions, data and use of corpus methods in combination with qualitative analysis. Zsófia Demjén (The Open University) and Elena Semino (Lancaster University) presented the findings from the project that are particularly relevant to communication between healthcare professionals and patients nearing the end of their lives. These findings include: how patients diagnosed with terminal cancer use Violence and Journey metaphors to talk about their experiences of illness and treatment; and how patients and healthcare professionals use a variety of metaphors to talk about their mutual relationships. The project team pointed out the different ‘framings’ provided by different uses of metaphor, particularly in terms of the empowerment and disempowerment of patients. They provided evidence that no metaphor is inherently good or bad for all patients, but rather suggested that different metaphors work differently for different people, or even for the same person at different times. In the final session, Veronika Koller introduced the ‘Metaphor Menu’ – a collection of metaphors used by cancer sufferers, which the team are planning to pilot as a resource for newly-diagnosed patients.

A lively discussion followed each presentation, with many members of the audience asking questions and contributing their personal and professional experiences. The workshop received very positive evaluations in anonymous feedback questionnaires: 83% of participants rated the session at 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale (where 1 corresponds to ‘Very poor’ and 5 to ‘Excellent’). Comments included: Very interesting research & resonated with my experience. Food for thought!’ and ‘Will help with my area of care, will help me understand and think about what my patients and relatives are actually telling me. Will make me reflect and respond more appropriately’.

Reflections from the Front Line: Sarah Russell on MELC and Twitter

Sarah Russell (Director of Education and Research, Peace Hospice Care and the Hospice of St Francis) attended this month’s Language in End-of Life-Care event, where an audience of approximately 40 healthcare professionals and researchers specialising in palliative and end-of-life care gathered to share their perspectives.

In a new blog post on eHospice, she reflects on this experience, as well as sharing some insight into a tweet chat with @WeNurses, where 128 participants came together to discuss individual experiences, symptom control, communication, recognising dying, family and patient needs, caring, and denial as a coping mechanism.

Read more to learn about Sarah’s experience, and to hear her challenge for everyone (including researchers and health care professionals) by visiting eHospice now.

‘Language in End-of-Life Care’: A user engagement event

On 8th May 2014, the main findings of the CASS-affiliated project ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ were presented to potential users of the research at the Work Foundation in central London. The event, entitled ‘Language in End-of-Life Care’ attracted an audience of approximately forty participants, consisting primarily of healthcare professionals and researchers specialising in palliative and end-of-life care. Although most participants are based in the UK, international guests joined us from Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the US.

melc1Professor Sheila Payne (Co-Investigator on the project and Co-Director of Lancaster’s International Observatory on End-of-Life Care), opened proceedings and acted as chair for the day’s activities. Two high-profile invited speakers shared their perspectives on communication in end-of-life care. Professor Lukas Radbruch (Chair of Palliative Medicine, University of Bonn) gave a presentation entitled ‘The search for a final sense of meaning in end-of-life discourses’. Among other things, he emphasized the influence of language and culture on perceptions and attitudes towards end of life and end-of-life care. Professor Dame Barbara Monroe (Chief Executive of St Christopher’s Hospice, London) discussed the main current challenges in hospice care in a talk entitled ‘Listening to patient and professional voices in end-of-life care’. These challenges, she argued, include those posed by a variety of linguistic and communicative barriers.

melc2

The methods, data and findings of the ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ project were introduced by four members of the team: Professor Elena Semino (Principal Investigator), Dr Veronika Koller (Co-Investigator), Dr Jane Demmen (Research Associate) and Dr Zsófia Demjén (former Research Associate, currently at the Open University). The project involves a combination of ‘manual’ and corpus-based methods to investigate the metaphors used to talk about end-of-life care in a 1.5-million-word corpus consisting of interviews with and online forum posts by terminally ill patients, family carers and health professionals. The team introduced the findings from the analysis that are particularly relevant to practitioners in end-of-life care, namely: the use of ‘violence’ and ‘journey’ metaphors by terminally ill patients, and the narratives of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deaths told by hospice managers in semi-structured interviews. The implications of these findings for end-of-life care were suggested by the team and discussed with the audience. Participants were also invited to discuss selected uses of metaphors from the health professionals’ data, and to consider the potential value of some creative, alternative metaphors for cancer in particular.

melc3The richness of the interactions on the day and the liveliness of the event’s hashtag on Twitter (#melc14) suggest that the event was a success. In the words of a hospice director: ‘everybody at the conference was truly inspired by the potential for change in practice and training!’ Although the funded phase of the project is coming to an end, the contacts made on the day are likely to lead to further collaborative research between the Lancaster team and healthcare professionals in the UK and beyond.

‘Fight’ metaphors for cancer revisited: Are they always bad?

By the ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ project team, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Funding Council (ESRC):

Elena Semino, Veronika Koller, Jane Demmen, Andrew Hardie, Paul Rayson, Sheila Payne (Lancaster University) and Zsófia Demjén (Open University)

Recent media controversy over the use of social media by people with terminal illness has sparked a new debate on ‘fight’ metaphors for cancer. Writing in the New York Times on 12th January 2014 about Lisa Bonchek Adams’s blogging and tweeting, Bill Keller describes her as having spent the last seven years in a fierce and very public cage fight with death’. On the one hand, Keller acknowledges that Bonchek Adams’s ‘decision to treat her terminal disease as a military campaign has worked for her’. On the other hand, he favourably compares his own father-in-law’s ‘calm death’ with what he describes as Bonchek-Adams’s choice to be ‘constantly engaged in battlefield strategy with her medical team’.

As part of the ESRC-funded project ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ at Lancaster University, we are studying the use of ‘fight’ metaphors by cancer patients in a large collection of interviews and online fora. We have found plenty of evidence of the negative sides of these metaphors, which have been criticised by many patients and commentators before Keller, and most famously by Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor (1979). Seeing illness as a fight can make people feel inadequate and responsible if they do not get better, as when a patient in our data writes: I feel such a failure that I am not winning this battle’. Military metaphors can also express distressing ways of perceiving oneself, such as when some patients describe themselves as ‘time bombs’ during periods of remission.

On the other hand, we are finding that, for some patients, ‘fight’ metaphors do seem to provide meaning, purpose and a positive sense of self. For example, writing in an online forum, a cancer sufferer proudly comments: ‘my consultants recognised that I was a born fighter’. Another patient says in an interview: ‘I don’t intend to give up; I don’t intend to give in. No I want to fight it. I don’t want it to beat me, I want to beat it. Because I don’t think we should give up trying.’ ‘Fight’ metaphors are also used to give and receive encouragement and solidarity. For example, a patient writes ‘let me hear you scream the battle cry to spur us on to win this war’, while another ends an online forum post with the words ‘Soldier on everybody’.

We would not go as far as to argue that ‘fight’ metaphors should be rehabilitated: they can do real harm, and nobody should ever feel under pressure to see themselves as fighters. However, as with most metaphors, the implications of ‘fight’ metaphors change depending on who uses them, why, where and how. Our data suggest that they can be helpful enough to be recognised and accepted as one of many possible ways of approaching illness, including its terminal phase.


The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2013/14 is £212 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

Originally posted on eHospice. Visit their page for more palliative care news from around the world.

‘The McGill Pain Questionnaire: A Linguist’s View’ and ‘Language and Art of Trigeminal Neuralgia’

On 29th June, I was invited to speak at the 2013 Conference of the UK Trigeminal Neuralgia Association, as part of an ongoing collaboration with Professor Joanna Zakrzewska, Facial Pain lead consultant at Eastman Dental Hospital in London. I gave two talks: ‘The McGill Pain Questionnaire: A Linguist’s View’ and ‘Language and Art of Trigeminal Neuralgia’ – the latter jointly with Professor Zakrzewska.

The first talk was aimed at health professionals and involved a corpus-based analysis of the descriptors for pain that are included in the McGill Pain Questionnaire, a widely used tool for the diagnosis of chronic pain. The findings of the work that has been carried out so far (in collaboration with Stuart Sharples, Applied Statistics) suggest that the linguistic behaviour of the descriptors in the English language generally may interfere with patients’ choices in ways that partly undermine the usefulness of the questionnaire. Further research may ultimately feed into the creation of a new version of the questionnaire. The second talk was aimed at both health professionals and sufferers, and involved a corpus-based analysis of patients’ and family carers’ accounts of their experiences of living with Trigeminal Neuralgia. The bulk of the data was drawn from the online forum of the Trigeminal Neuralgia Association. This work is particularly relevant to the goals of the Association, as it helps to achieve a greater acknowledgment and understanding of the views, challenges and needs of both sufferers and carers.

Elena Semino, Veronika Koller, and Zsófia Demjén investigating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deaths in interviews with hospice managers

What is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ death from the point of view of health professionals who work in hospices? As part of the CASS affiliated project ‘Metaphor in End of Life Care’ at Lancaster University  (funded by the Economic & Social Research Council), we tried to find out. We conducted interviews with 15 hospice managers based in the UK. Amongst other things, each interviewee was asked: ‘How would you describe a good and a bad death?’

Almost all interviewees stressed that different people will have different ideas about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the experience of death. As a consequence, their own job involves finding out and fulfilling the wishes of patients and their families. The difference between good and bad deaths is partly expressed via contrasting metaphors.

To find out what they said, read the full post on the European Association for Palliative Care website. For more information on the project, visit the MELC website, http://ucrel.lancs.ac.uk/melc/.