Introductory Blog – Hanna Schmueck

I am very honoured to have received the Geoffrey Leech Outstanding MA Student Award for my MA in Language and Linguistics. This award traditionally goes to the MA student with the highest overall average.

I started my postgraduate journey in September 2019 after finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Bamberg (Germany) in 2018 and working as a freelance translator and teacher for a year. I’ve always had an interest in the way language influences us both as individuals and as a society and have carried with me a fascination for experimentation and statistics. I first discovered corpus linguistics in the second year of my undergraduate degree, it soon after cemented itself as my primary research interest. I chose a corpus-based project for my undergraduate dissertation on pronouns in the English-lexifier lingua franca Bislama. From here I realised that much of the relevant methodological literature had been published by Lancaster academics – which cemented my decision to apply at Lancaster despite having to move abroad and face a number of Brexit-related administrative hurdles.

When I finally came to Lancaster for my MA, I felt welcome in the department from day one and I had the chance to attend/audit a wide variety of modules such as Cognitive Linguistics, Experimental Approaches to Language and Cognition, Forensic Linguistics, Stylistics, and Corpus Linguistics. The freedom of choice that Lancaster MA students in Language and Linguistics are given was another major motivation for studying at Lancaster and the flexible approach really benefited my personal learning experience. Another important element of my academic learning experience was being able to attend research groups – such as the Trinity group and UCREL talks –which focus on a wide variety of topics and allow you to come into contact with people that have all kinds of specialisms while getting the opportunity to develop your own research interests further.

I had, like all of us, not foreseen that my MA would move online in spring and all the challenges COVID-19 would bring about, but after the first phase of getting used to the situation I tried my best to see this as an opportunity to focus on my MA thesis titled “More than the sum of its parts: Collocation networks in the written section of the BNC2014 Baby+”. The aim of this thesis was to explore corpus-wide collocation networks and their structural and graph-theoretical properties using the BNC2014 Baby+ as the underlying dataset. I developed a method to create and display large MI2-score based weighted networks in order to analyse meta-level collocational patterns that emerge and performed a graph-theoretical analysis on them. The results obtained from this pilot study suggested that there is an underlying structure that all sections in the BNC2014 Baby+ share and the structure of the generated networks resembles other networks from a wide variety of phenomena such as power grids, social networks, and networks of brain neurons. The findings indicated that there are, however, text-type specific differences in terms of how connected different topic areas are and that certain words serve as hubs connecting topics with one another. The network displayed below is an example taken from the BNC Baby+ academic books section with a filter applied to only show the node “award”, its direct neighbours and their weighted interrelations.

I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to learn from and exchange ideas with so many amazing academics in the department over the course of my MA and I’m very excited to carry on researching collocation networks for my PhD here at Lancaster.

New CASS project: Feedback on NHS Cancer services

 In recent months, CASS members Paul Baker  and Gavin Brookes  have embarked on a project working with the National Health Service (NHS), using corpus linguistics methods to investigate patient concerns in a large corpus (approx. 14 million words) of patient feedback on NHS cancer care. Below we discuss what the project will entail.

If this project sounds familiar, it is because we carried out a similar project four years ago, also using corpus techniques to examine NHS patient feedback more generally (you can read about this work in this book and this journal article in BMJ Open).

This latest project was made possible with ESRC funding (£84,006 FEC) and involves collaboration between CASS and NHS England who provided us with electronic versions of approximately 200,000 patient questionnaires given annually to all patients who receive treatment for cancer in England. We have been given access to four years of data (2015-2018) which has been mounted on Lancaster University’s online corpus analysis system CQPWeb.

We will be using and refining some of the techniques we developed in that earlier work to explore, for example, what kinds of concerns drive patients’ evaluations, how patients’ priorities change throughout the duration of their care, and what types of concerns patients regard as being most urgent. This set of comments differs from that which we analysed previously in an important respect; specifically, we have access to metadata regarding patients’ age, ethnicity, sex and sexuality, as well the type of cancer they received treatment for and the hospital they attended. Therefore, our analysis will also explore what impacts these variables are likely to have on patients’ expectations and how that impacts on the language they use when talking about and evaluating NHS services.

Another important difference between this project and the last one is that we will be able to draw on the expertise of Professor Sheila Payne – an expert in palliative and end of life care who has also been involved in other CASS projects in the past (e.g. Metaphor in End of Life Care (MELC).  Sheila’s insight will help to guide the aims of the project and to ensure that these are relevant and of value to the NHS, while her expertise will be key to interpreting the significance of our findings.

POS Tagging for Georgian is now available in #LancsBox


POS Tagging for Georgian is now available in #LancsBox

We are delighted to announce that part-of-speech tagging for Georgian is now available in #LancsBox. This is the very first Georgian POS tagger made available for wide range of users and uses. It enables users to perform various linguistic analysis on their own texts or corpora in #LancsBox.

The POS-tagger for Georgian was developed within my PhD project (Computational analysis of morphosyntactic categories in Georgian) at the University of Leeds. The tagset design part of my research was conducted in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science at Lancaster University and was supervised by Dr Andrew Hardie.  Thanks to Dr Vaclav Brezina the lead developer of #LancsBox, now this tagger is available to be used in #LancsBox (Brezina et al., 2015, 2018, 2020).

I use a probabilistic methodology (TreeTagger) and enclitic tokenisation approach to perform tagging in Georgian. The accuracy of part-of-speech tagging 92%. The tagger program uses a new morphosyntactic language model (developed for POS tagging purposes) and KATAG tagset (219 tags) based on this model. The KATAG tagset is a hierarchical-decomposable tagset which allows the user to search for different sections of the paradigm.

#LancsBox is a very powerful corpus analysis tool.  It can be used at different levels of analysis of language data and corpora. It automatically annotates data for part-of-speech and can be used to find frequencies of different word classes such as nouns, verbs etc., compute frequency and dispersion measures for POS tags, find and visualise co-occurrence of grammatical categories. It can also find complex linguistic structures using ‘smart searches’. For example, there are 60 ‘smart searches’ available for Georgian in #LancsBox such as:

ADJECTIVES GENITIVE CASE                      looks up for adjectives in genitive case

ADVERBS                                                          any adverbs

NOUNS ERGATIVE CASE                              nouns in ergative case

PRONOUNS DEMONSTRATIVE                   demonstrative pronouns

PRONOUNS INTERROGATIVE                     interrogative pronouns

PRONOUNS PERSONAL                                 personal pronouns

VERBS AORIST TENSE                                  verbs in aorist tense

VERBS I PERSON                                             verbs 1st person of subject

VERBS II PERSON PLURAL                           verbs 2nd person of subject plural

VERBS IMPERFECT TENSE                           verbs imperfect tense

To demonstrate how to use ‘smart searches’ in #LancsBox I use a small Covid19 corpus (229,481 tokens). I am interested to find out which verbs immediately follow the word coronavirus. Thus, my search term is: კორონავირუსი VERBS

This image displays an alphabetically arranged concordance lines in #LancsBox, showing the most immediate contexts in which the search term is used. This allows me to analyse frequency and dispersion of the node კორონავირუსი (coronavirus) immediately followed by a verb. Here it occurs 37 times (1.612 per 10k) in Covid19 Corpus in 10 out of 11 texts.

Representations of Obesity in the News: Project update and book announcement!

Gavin Brookes and Paul Baker

We are delighted to announce the forthcoming publication of a book based on research carried out as part of the CASS project, ‘Representations of Obesity in the News’. The book, titled Obesity in the News: Language and Representation in the Press, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. You can see a sneak preview of the cover here!

The book reports analysis of a 36 million-word corpus of all UK national newspaper articles mentioning obese or obesity published over a ten-year period (2008-2017). This analysis combines methods from Corpus Linguistics with Critical Discourse Studies to explore the discourses that characterise press coverage of obesity during this period. The book explores a wide range of themes in this large dataset, with chapters that answer the following questions:

• What discourses characterise representations of obesity in the press as a whole?

• How do obesity discourses differ according to newspapers’ formats and political leanings?

• How have obesity discourses changed over time, and how do they interact with the annual news cycle?

• How does the press use language to shame and stigmatise people with obesity, and how are attempts to ‘reclaim’ the notion of obesity depicted?

• What discourses surround the core concepts of the ‘healthy body’, ‘diet’ and ‘exercise’ in press coverage of obesity?

• How do obesity discourses interact with gender, and how does this influence the ways in which men and women with obesity are represented?

• How does the press talk about social class in relation to obesity, and how do such discourses contribute to differing depictions of obesity in people from different social class groups?

• Finally, how do audiences respond to press depictions of obesity in below-the-line comments on online articles?

The book will be the latest output from this project. You can read more about our work on changing representations of obesity over time in this recent Open Access article published in Social Science & Medicine. We are also working on articles which expand our analysis of obesity and social class, depictions of obesity risk, and obesity discourses in press coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, so keep your eyes peeled for further announcements!

ICR Outstanding Corpus Thesis Award for Lancaster PhD graduate

I am honoured to have received the Institute for Corpus Research Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Award. The purpose of this annual award is to recognise and reward theses in the field of Corpus Linguistics.

I conducted my PhD research in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science at Lancaster University, which is part of Department of Linguistics and English Language. My thesis was titled Collocational Processing in Typologically Different Languages, English and Turkish: Evidence from Corpora and Psycholinguistic Experimentation. Some of the findings based on my PhD research are reported in this article. The study was multidisciplinary, involving both corpus analysis and psycholinguistic experimentation. Supervisors Dr Vaclav Brezina and Prof Patrick Rebuschat played a key role in shaping the thesis. Their academic knowledge and insight have been invaluable in developing a multidisciplinary perspective to pioneer a contrastive study of English and Turkish.

Turkish, with its rich morphology, differs from English – prompting questions about whether the same variables affect collocational processing in the two languages. Importantly, so far the vast majority of research on collocational processing has focussed on a narrow range of primarily European languages, especially English, which makes it difficult to generalise the findings to other languages. Corpus analyses showed that uninflected collocations have similar mean frequencies and association counts in both languages. When inflected forms were included, 75% of the Turkish collocations occurred at a higher frequency than the collocations in English, suggesting that language typology impacts frequency of collocations.

I then conducted psycholinguistic experiments to understand the differences and similarities between the processing of collocations in English and Turkish and by native and non-native English speakers. To what extent is there a difference between native-speakers’ (of English and Turkish) sensitivity to both individual word-level and phrase level frequency information when processing collocations? Mixed-effects regression modelling revealed that Turkish and English native-speakers are equally sensitive to collocation frequencies, confirming collocations’ psychological reality in both languages. Yet English speakers were additionally affected by individual word-frequencies, indicating that language typologies require users to process collocations from different sources of information.

Furthermore, this thesis investigated the effects of individual word and collocational frequency on native and non-native speakers’ collocational processing in English. Both groups of participants demonstrated sensitivity to individual word and collocation frequency. The findings align with the predictions of usage-based approaches that language acquisition should be viewed as a statistical accumulation of experiences that changes every time we encounter a particular utterance.

This study identified both universal fundamentals and language-specific differences in collocational processing. It addressed language typology and second-language learning through a novel multidisciplinary approach which reinforces and challenges usage-based theories of language learning, demonstrating that they should include typologically different languages to develop broader perspectives on processing.

Please see the link here for more information about this award.

If you have any questions, or are interested in working with me, get in touch. Dr Doğuş Can Öksüz Research fellow at the University of Leeds.

Covid-19 and the International Baccalaureate

A month passed, but yet our pain hasn’t diminished and justice unserved (#ibscandal, Aug 6)

Three months ago, when I wrote my introductory post for the CASS blog, I had a clear research plan for my SSHRC (Canada’s Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council) postdoctoral fellowship, which involved examining IB discourses in a large corpus of global (English) newspapers to see how these compared to IB discourses in Canada. However, that plan took a completely new and unexpected turn last month when Covid-19 and the IB collided.

The word “unprecedented” has been used a great deal in connection with our current Covid-19 world. While readers of history may raise a sceptical eyebrow about exactly how unprecedented this situation is, it does apply to the IB organization and the events unfolding globally in relation to the May 2020 final examination results which were released on July 6. This year has been unlike any other year in the organization’s 52 year history because for the first time, the high stakes IB diploma program final exams were cancelled due to Covid-19. The announcement was made on March 23, further elaborated by the Director General Siva Kumari on March 24, with a follow-up statement on May 13 describing in detail the alternate assessment model to be used.

On July 6, the IB organization published the final results for 174,355 IB Diploma Program (DP) and Career-related Program (CP) students with great fanfare. Of these, 170,343 were DP candidates from 146 countries, whose results would most likely be linked to university admission. Congratulatory messages were splashed on the IB organization website and Twitter feeds, celebrating the triumph of the Class of 2020 for their great achievements in such a difficult year. Messages from the Director General, Siva Kumari, Deputy Director Sally Holloway, Chief Assessment Officer Paula Wilcock and representatives from IB schools around the world joined together in their praise for this cohort, who had been forced to adapt to a new and fluid situation.

But a problem was brewing that was not evident from the IB organization’s celebratory communication. Reports began to emerge from a variety of sources (e.g., Wired, Reuters, TES, Financial Times, Bloomberg) about issues with IB final results, which turned out to be lower than many had expected and thus put students’ university admission and/or scholarships in jeopardy. Within four days of the release of results, an online petition calling for “Justice for May 2020 IB Graduates”, with the hashtag #ibscandal, had already collected 15,000 signatures. Government bodies such as Ofqual (Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) in the UK and the Data Protection Authority in Norway also became involved in seeking clarification regarding the IB organization’s grading system. Despite such wide coverage, the IB website released only a single statement on July 15 about the results, and the @iborganization Twitter account remained largely inactive, with nine posts on July 6 in connection to the results, and the next post on July 20 saying: In response to the enquiries received, we share further clarity regarding our awarding model for the May 2020 session. We are in direct communication with schools, providing support options including a new process to review extraordinary cases. Learn more:

Over the past month, the #ibscandal hashtag has evolved to become a space where not only students, parents and teachers voice their opinions (e.g., the quote at the start), but also where key information is exchanged, such as newly published articles or videos. There are also academics and journalists posting on this site, most recently a professor from New York University looking to talk to students “affected by the 2020 #ibscandal”. And on July 30, there was an announcement saying that the IB controversy was now on Wikipedia. In sum, there is a stark contrast between the IB organization’s silence on anything to do with results on one side, while anger and frustration mount on the other.

Meanwhile, in Canada, no coverage of these events can be found anywhere. This is curious since Canada not only has the second highest number of DP candidates in the world (11,962 reported for the May 2020 examination session) but ranks as the number one “destination for IB transcripts of any university in the world” (Arida, 2016). It would seem reasonable to expect that there might be some interest in the events taking place globally. Just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything, I conducted a search for international AND baccalaureate on Canadian News stream, a database containing over 280 news sources. Of the 17 results for the month of July, three were not about the IB, two mentioned the IB in passing as part of a person’s qualifications, one reported on a school in Vancouver going ahead with its plans to become an IB school, 10 reported on complaints against Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette and her assistant, who had been friends “going back to their days in an international baccalaureate program decades ago”. And one article, from July 21 (over two weeks after the IB results were published), is a reprint of the Reuters story Global exam grading algorithm under fire for suspected bias by A. A. Schapiro. In other words, there is no Canadian news story even though the topic is clearly newsworthy.

So like everyone else who is interested in this topic, I am a regular visitor to the #ibscandal hashtag, observing events unfold in real-time. As a result I’ve noticed some rather interesting developments over the past four weeks which I hope to explore further using corpus tools and methods. As they often say here at CASS, watch this space!

Update: Since this piece was written, the IB organization issued a statement on August 17 explaining changes to their assessment model in light of data and evidence they received from schools. The announcement also appeared on the organization’s Twitter feed (

PhD conference prize for James Balfour

I am honoured to have received the award for “student research with the most potential for impact” at the 2020 Corpora and Discourse International conference this year. The award, which included a prize of £150, was sponsored by Palgrave and decided through nominations from conference attendees. The talk can be accessed online here:

The findings are part of a larger project examining how people with schizophrenia are portrayed in British newspapers. While symptoms of schizophrenia, which include auditory and visual hallucinations (e.g. ‘hearing voices’), affect roughly 1 in 100 people, most of the general public obtain all their understanding of the disorder from the media. This is because most people are unlikely to have first-hand experiences of people with the disorder. After all, people with mental illnesses are not visually identifiable (in the way people with some physical disabilities are) and, as a consequence, no one could identify someone with schizophrenia from just the way they look. Moreover, another symptom people with schizophrenia often experience is social withdrawal, which means that some people diagnosed with the disorder may avoid contact with others. It is therefore crucial that the media provides accurate and tolerant portrayals of people with schizophrenia so that the general public can understand the disorder and are encouraged to treat people with the disorder with respect and compassion.

My talk focussed on differences between the language used to represent people with schizophrenia in the British tabloids and broadsheets. To compare differences, I identified words which were significantly more frequent in either dataset relative to the other. This identified words which were distinctive to either the tabloids or broadsheets reportage on schizophrenia. What I found was that these words converged around a distinctive topic for each dataset. In the tabloids, this distinctive topic was “crime”. These words referred to the sentencing and imprisonment of criminals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, or the risks posed deinstitutionalising patients from hospital. Hence, a distinctive feature of the reporting in the tabloids was the tendency to represent people with schizophrenia as dangerous. For instance, the following example from The Star reports a story where a patient with schizophrenia has been deinstitutionalised.

BLUNDERS FREED KILLER FROM MENTAL HOSPITAL. A SERIES of errors left a crazed killer at large to stab to death a hero detective. (The Star, 20 May 2005).

Notice how the individual is referred to twice as a killer, which reduces the identity of the individual to their crime. Other aspects of the patient’s identity and their circumstances – noticeably the patient’s own mental distress – are left unmentioned. Instead, he is referred to as crazed, which is a simplistic and dismissive representation of his mental health issues. The fact that he is represented as a killer even before reference is made to his crime even seems to mislead us into thinking that he had committed murder before being deinstitutionalised, which was not the case.

Instead, a distinctive topic in the broadsheets was “art and culture”. These words occur in stories in where a link is posited between psychosis and creativity. For instance, in the following excerpt from The Telegraph, the Victorian painter Richard Dadd is praised for offering in his work a representation of what the journalist paradoxically calls a genuine manic fantasy, which is contrasted with the lets-pretend of contemporary artists who do not experience psychosis. This suggests that Dadd’s paintings are more valuable than those of other artists because they provide insights into an unusual sensory experience.

Oberon and Titania (1854/58) by the schizophrenic Richard Dadd offers genuine manic fantasy, as opposed to the tiresome let’s-pretend of so much of the art of his contemporaries. (The Telegraph, 21 September 2003).

Linking schizophrenia with creativity is part of a much broader stereotype whereby people with health issues are viewed as gifted in a particular enterprise. A more obvious example of this is the stereotypical association between autism and mathematical prowess. These representations, while being more positive, may lead people to have expectations of people with schizophrenia than they are likely unable to or do not want to meet.

A distinctive feature of both tabloids and broadsheets, therefore, is to represent people with schizophrenia as different – as undesirably different and desirably different, respectively. However, most people with schizophrenia are neither dangerous criminals nor talented artists but normal people trying to live their lives. While it is understandable that the press likes to report on unusual people, this inevitably leads to a distorted picture of people with schizophrenia which exacerbates misunderstandings and prejudiced beliefs. Life can be difficult for people diagnosed with schizophrenia already without them having to face the additional problem of being burdened with inaccurate expectations reproduced by the media. Using findings like these, the project looks to working closely with journalists and charities to make the language we use around schizophrenia more accurate and tolerant.

For more details about this project see: If you have any questions or observations, please contact me via

‘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


PhD conference prize for Mark Wilkinson

At the 2020 Corpora and Discourse International Conference, I was very honoured to receive an award for the conference paper “showing the greatest methodological innovation or reflexivity by a student researcher”. The award was sponsored by the Applied Corpus Linguistics journal and included a prize of £250. This year’s online conference, hosted by the University of Sussex, featured a wide variety of brilliant research from students around the world. That I was nominated for the award makes me truly humble and I am especially grateful to my supervisor, Professor Paul Baker, for all his support and guidance during my doctoral research. I would like to take this opportunity to share with you a summary of my talk which is titled: “Black or gay or Jewish or whatever”: A diachronic corpus-based discourse analysis of how the UK’s LGBTQI population came to be represented as secular, cisgender, gay, white and male (available to watch here:

This talk emerged from my PhD research in which I aim to map how The Times has used language to discursively construct LGBTQI identities in the UK over the past 60 years. I’m particularly interested in the histories of identity and this is why I’ve chosen to take a diachronic approach, collecting many decades of language data from one of the UK’s most influential broadsheets. This focus on history is based on the assumption adapted from post-structuralist discourse theory (Laclau & Mouffe 1985) that all identities are partially the result of consistent choices in representation made over a sustained period of time.

In order to garner a sense of which discourses have been consistent, I decided to look at both consistent keywords and consistent collocates. This revealed several currents running through the corpus. First, in spite of the fact that the search terms used to build the corpus reflected the inherent diversity within the LGBTQI population, the majority of key terms pertained to gay men. This indicates that the history of queer representation in The Times is primarily their history while the histories of lesbian, bisexual, trans and gender non-conforming people have been largely erased or obfuscated. Second, an analysis of consistent collocates for the word gay showed that additional identifications such as Black and Jewish were statistically significant from the 1980s onward. A closer analysis of the newspaper articles that featured this usage showed that such terms were used in one of two ways. First, Black and Jewish were often used as marked terms which implied that such intersecting identities were exceptional. I would therefore argue that this markedness implies the presumed whiteness and non-Jewishness of the archetypal gay man as presumed by The Times. Secondly, the terms Black and gay as well as Jewish and gay were often presented as mutually exclusive categories. In other words, individuals were represented as being either black or gay, but never both. Cumulatively, it was argued that the history of LGBTQI representation in The Times suggests that through consistent choices in representation over a sustained period of time, the queer population of the UK came to be represented as secular, cisgender, gay, white and male. But, as there was never any use of the term white, how could I make this claim?

Drawing on the intellectual tradition of critical race theory (Baldwin 1963; Crenshaw 1990; Morrison 1992; Hall 1997), I argued that ‘race’ – while certainly a lived experience with material consequences – is not simply a neutral taxonomy of phenotypical differences between people, but is rather an ideological construct that functions as a structuring force in society such that certain bodies are given more value than others. Within this racialised matrix, whiteness is not only privileged, but is passed off as neutral and universal – an unmarked category that functions largely by ‘erasing its own tracks’ (Trechter and Bucholtz 2001:10). From a linguistic perspective then, whiteness functions ‘much like a linguistic sign, taking its meaning from those surrounding categories to which it is structurally opposed’ (Trechter and Bucholtz 2001:5). Therefore, in the data from The Times, the racialisation of gay men as Black, necessarily implies that the whiteness of all other gay men is indeed the implied universal.

In conclusion, it was argued that these cumulative processes are not benign, but rather indicate how the power of language can erase entire groups of people from popular discourse. Furthermore, the combination of corpus data with theories from both within and beyond linguistics is essential in mapping the discursive construction and representation of identities.


Baldwin, J. (1963). The Fire Next Time. New York: Dial Press.

Crenshaw, K., (1990). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review43, p.1241.

Hall, S. (1997). ‘The spectacle of ‘the other’’. In Hall, S. (ed) (1997) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage.

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and socialist strategy: Towards a radical democratic politics. London: Verso.

Morrison, T. (1992). Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the literary imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trechter, S. and Bucholtz, M. (2001). ‘Introduction: White noise: Bringing language into whiteness studies’. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 11(1), pp.3-21.




From careful to careless reporting: The effect of COVID-19 on the representation of Islam and Muslims – Isobelle Clarke

In my current position, funded by the Aziz Foundation, in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences at Lancaster University, I am investigating the representation of Muslims and Islam in the UK press. Previous research has revealed the major press representations of Islam and Muslims between 1998 to 2009 and between 2010 to 2014 in order to assess how much has changed. One of my aims in this project is to develop and extend that research in order to assess if the major press representations of Muslims and Islam from January 2015 to December 2019 have changed or stayed the same since those time periods investigated. That research is very much under way and I am looking forward to writing up the results and sharing them with you. But (and I am sure it is the same for anyone else looking at the representations of different social phenomena or groups in the media), it already feels like so much has happened since December 2019 and I felt it was important to address this.

When I started the project I was quickly introduced to the Muslim Council of Britain’s (MCB) Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM) team. At our first meeting we sat around a table at their offices in White Chapel and spoke about our aims for the project. We immediately found similarities of approach and a shared purpose – to identify negative trends and promote positive practice in the media’s representation of Islam and Muslims. They asked me how I had become interested in this research and I remember mentioning how infuriated I was with Boris Johnson’s opinion piece in the Telegraph on Denmark’s banning of the burqa. In that piece he positioned Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa as being in a ‘catch 22’, whereby they can never be ‘free’ for as long as they wear a burqa because even if they choose to wear it, according to Boris, it is still a ‘dehumanising garment’. I drew parallels with rape victims who are interrogated and accused of ‘asking for it’ by the cross-examiner for wearing a dress that falls above the knee and/or high heels. We each shared our own frustrations and I suddenly realised that whilst I was aware of many problems in the reporting of Islam and Muslims, I was about to fall down the biggest rabbit hole, where I would never be able to look at a report on Muslims or Islam without seeing some form of bias or misrepresentation.

During this COVID-19 global pandemic, I have found myself reading and/or listening to the media far more than I have before. With an increased sensitivity to the media and being 6 months deep into this rabbit hole, I have noticed that reporting on Islam and Muslims has shifted.

In previous research investigating the representation of Islam and Muslims, it was found that much had stayed the same since 1998-2009 when reporting on Islam and Muslims between 2010-2014; however there were cases where things had changed and reporting had become more careful in trying to represent what had happened accurately and fairly. For instance, there was a growing acknowledgement that Islam has several different denominations. Between 1998 to 2009, these different denominations were rarely referred to or distinguished in the press. However, press reports concerning Islam and Muslims during 2010 to 2014 were referring to the different denominations more often than before. This was a positive improvement as it promoted religious literacy and better represented which groups of Muslims were involved in an event, rather than ascribing the event to all Muslims.

Despite these attempts at trying to include as much detail as possible to avoid misrepresentation, during the pandemic careful reporting appears to have been de-emphasised. A report’s accuracy now comes second to the spectacle of sensationalist reporting that fits a familiar narrative. In other words, the press have gone backwards.

Whilst I have noticed many instances of problematic reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one consistent narrative that ties many of them together. This narrative is affiliated to the “Us versus Them” dichotomy, especially the positive presentation of ‘Us’ and the negative presentation of ‘Them’. However, the reports extend this to present ‘Us’ as rule-followers and ‘Them’ as rule-breakers, where ‘Them’ are Muslims who have been scapegoated as a threat to ‘Us’ – the rest of society (i.e. Non-Muslims). In the rest of this blog, I will contextualise and describe a very specific example of this discourse and attempt to articulate the effects of such careless and reckless reporting.

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan happened during the COVID-19 pandemic from 23 April 2020 to 23 May 2020. During Ramadan, many Muslims fast between dawn and sunset as a way to show their devotion to their faith and come closer to God. There is also a special festival at the end of Ramadan called Eid al-Fitr, which means the festival of the breaking of the fast. Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer, doing good deeds and spending time with family and friends. It is a time where Muslims make a special effort to connect with their communities and help those in need. Of course, during the pandemic with worldwide lockdown restrictions, Ramadan, and many other events, happened a little differently.

The PM of the UK Boris Johnson announced on 23rd March 2020 that people in the UK must stay at home and that they can only leave to:

  • shop for basic necessities,
  • exercise once per day
  • provide care to a vulnerable person
  • attend to a medical need or
  • travel to work but only where necessary and if it can’t be done from home.

In addition, Boris Johnson ordered places of worship, restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs, and a number of retail stores to close. Large gatherings were banned and many other rules and restrictions were put in place to try and curb the spread of the virus. Such restrictions and lockdown measures meant that normal and traditional Ramadan festivities could not take place. Muslims couldn’t go to the mosque to pray, they couldn’t break their fast or celebrate Eid with their communities, family members or friends living in different households.

Before these restrictions even came into place and before Ramadan began, the Muslim Council of Britain had urged all mosques to close and they set out specific guidance for Ramadan during this unique time. This guidance provided details of how to adhere to the government’s lockdown restrictions and take part in this holy month of Ramadan. It also reassured Muslims that it was not necessary to go to the mosque to pray. Despite this very clear, explicit guidance that adhered to the government’s restrictions, the media were nevertheless focused on presenting Muslims as a threat to the rest of society because they either were going to break the rules during Ramadan, or may do so. For example, on the 12th April 2020 the Sunday Times had the headline:

“Experts fear spike in cases when families gather for Ramadan”

This headline is problematic for several reasons. First, it is factually incorrect. There was one ‘expert’, not more than one, as denoted by the plural Experts. In the context of this story, one might imagine that an expert would be someone who is an epidemiologist (one who studies the spread of infection) or mathematician (one who models and predicts the spread of infectious diseases). Yet the expert referred to in the Sunday Times is a consultant transplant nephrologist (someone who deals with kidney transplants). Given that the spread of COVID-19 cannot be cured or prevented by a kidney transplant, it can be argued that the expert selected was not appropriate as they were not an expert in this context.

Second, the headline makes assumptions, which misrepresent the truth. The clause “when families gather for Ramadan” presupposes that families will gather for Ramadan in ways that do not abide by the lockdown regulations (i.e. gathering with your family members from different households). This headline consequently problematised Muslims before Ramadan had even begun. It suggested that Muslims may be intending to break the rules wilfully for Ramadan. Muslims were therefore positioned as a threat to the rest of society as they were scapegoated for a potential spike in cases of COVID-19.

Following critique from the Centre for Media Monitoring, The Sunday Times corrected their headline:

“Expert fears a spike in UK coronavirus cases if communities gather for Ramadan”.

Although the expertise of the expert was not addressed, the change from the WH-clause to the conditional clause “if communities gather for Ramadan” makes this headline far less accusatory and presuppositional. Instead, it positions a spike in UK coronavirus cases as a potential consequence if people are to gather for Ramadan. Whilst the assumption that communities could gather for Ramadan is still present, in the new version it is not assumed that all Muslims will ignore the rules and gather for Ramadan.

Even though the Sunday Times made these corrections, it is important to note that the major problem with this report is that the scapegoating of Muslims in the UK press is unfair and disproportionate. Good Friday and Easter Sunday also fell during the tight lockdown restrictions. However, an article that implied that all Christian families and communities would break the rules in order to gather and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, or to take their families on Easter Egg hunts, did not appear in the Times or the Sunday Times. Christians make up more of the UK’s population than Muslims and so on numerical grounds alone they pose a greater risk of spreading the infection and causing a spike if they were to break the rules. Therefore, the focus on and scapegoating of Muslims is unfair.

Overall, the underlying narrative ‘Muslims as rule breakers’ is an articulation of the “Us versus Them” dichotomy, where Muslims are “Them” positioned in opposition to “Non-Muslims”. In the context of COVID-19, ‘Them’ are rule breakers, who are threats to the health of society, and so once again we find the UK press demonising Muslims and marking them as threats to society.

So many people and organisations are helped by Muslims in their charity work throughout the year and especially during Ramadan, when Muslims make a special effort to help those in need. This charity work has not stopped during the pandemic, but it has just taken different forms. For example, mosques in Liverpool have launched a helpline for the whole community to provide support during the pandemic. Additionally, volunteers from Newcastle Central mosque have launched a COVID-19 support group by delivering essential supplies, such as food and medicine to those in need and who are self-isolating. These emergency parcels are delivered for free and funded by the One Ummah charity. There are so many more examples of positive work being led by Muslims than there are negative, but these positive stories tend to be reported in the local as opposed to national press.

During these unprecedented times, it can be very easy to look for people or groups to blame, and when the press consistently demonise particular groups, those groups are even easier to accuse. This small blog is a call to go back to striving towards careful and accurate reporting. Let us change the narrative. #PositivelyMuslim