Studying during COVID: When Life Gives You Lemons, Analyse Them

After working for two years at a Students’ Union, I thought 2019/20 was the right time to go back to university and start a full-time MSc in Applied Linguistics. Two UCU strikes and one pandemic later, I still think I made the right choice. Don’t get me wrong, only having one full semester of teaching was a bit of a nightmare but I was studying a subject that I loved and the coronavirus pandemic created a unique opportunity for my final research project.

For those of you that don’t know what Applied (or even regular) Linguistics is, it involves the study of language. And before you ask, no I am not fluent in a bunch of languages. I wish I was but I’m too traumatised from studying A-Level French to even try and learn a new language. Applied Linguistics involves analysing the language (i.e. words or phrases) used in different settings. This could be in a classroom, at a GP surgery or, in my case, a press briefing.

Setting the Scene

Like many students, my second semester of studying was completely interrupted (read: ruined) by COVID. A national lockdown was declared and I found myself stuck in a top floor flat in the outskirts of Edinburgh. Not ideal. All the essays and exams I was preparing for were cancelled and my original idea for my research project was in tatters. The outlook was pretty bleak.

In order to keep up to date with everything that was going on I started watching the press briefings from the Isle of Man Government and after a while I noticed that the Chief Minister used one word quite a lot… Obviously.

So I got to work and started to create a new research proposal. My new plan was to look at the use of obviously within the Isle of Man Government coronavirus press briefings. Perfect. I mean I was already setting aside time every day to watch these briefings so I might as well use this time wisely. After being assigned my supervisor, I realised how big a task I had on my hands. By the end of my data collection I had watched 50 briefings, transcribed a total of 2,094 minutes, which amounted to 353,956 words.

“Well obviously we’re doing everything we can”

Now, usually in regular conversation people use the word obviously 11 times in every 100,000 words. In other words it’s not very frequent. But within the press briefings obviously was used 184 times in every 100,000 words. That’s quite a difference! The main question this raised was, well, why? Was there any particular reason why obviously was used so much?

This was where things got interesting. Or at least, I found it interesting!

First, I looked at the individual speakers present in the press briefings. I needed to know whether this high frequency of obviously was down to one individual or whether it was a habit adopted by everyone present. I made profiles of each speaker (so every Minister, journalist, civil servant etc who spoke at the briefings) and found that 30 out of 47 speakers used obviously at least once. So this use of obviously wasn’t down to one person but was a pattern used by many people involved in the briefings.

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Next I dug a little deeper. Many people don’t know this but obviously has been found to have four different meanings:

Evidential: this is the meaning most people associate with obviously, it indicates that there is evidence to back up what is being said

Impositive: this type of obviously is used when it is assumed or expected that someone knows something – it roughly equates to “you should know this”. It has commonly been found to be used by people who are trying to exercise some form of authority.

Solidarity: this meaning of obviously is used to show that a belief or view is shared by wider society e.g. as a society we know that racism is bad, therefore it is obvious that you shouldn’t be racist

Distance: this is the least common meaning of obviously, its used when people want to mask their uncertainty (so they say something is obvious when it really isn’t)

Obviously has these different meanings because it is hearer-oriented. In other words, there is a gap between a speaker’s intended meaning and the literal meaning of the word – the person listening (the hearer) has to fill in that gap. This leaves room for different interpretations and meanings to develop over time. Did everyone use the same meanings of obviously in the briefings? Or were certain meanings used by different groups of people?

DISCLAIMER: my results were open to my own interpretation. It does not mean that my observations should be taken as 100% truth because I was not in the room and was not involved in the briefings themselves.

The results of my analysis showed that journalists used a lot of the evidential meaning of obviously to try and back up their point. They would present evidence (“a lot of farmers have been in touch and are concerned about…”) and then use obviously later on in their question. It was often used as a way to level the playing field. Ministers often had all the info about the pandemic on the Island. By showing that they had information that the Ministers might not know about (e.g. they might not know that Jack the Farmer is very upset about people walking on his land), journalists tried to almost barter an exchange of information.

Ministers on the other hand used the impositive meaning of obviously the most. This highlighted their position of authority. Other studies have shown that this meaning of obviously can sometimes be interpreted as aggressive or dogmatic. While the Ministers in these briefings weren’t overtly aggressive, this type of obviously was often used as a way to put down the journalists. I found it was often used at the beginning of an answer to a question and could roughly be translated as “you should know this because a press release was shared a couple of hours ago/someone asked this before/I said this at a previous briefing”.

So what?

If you’ve managed to last this whole article, firstly well done – not everyone likes a bit of linguistics in their life – and secondly you’re probably thinking why the hell have Gef the Mongoose given space for this article? Well I just thought that it could be reassuring for students out there to know that while the pandemic is still going on, you can still produce some great work and make some lemonade out of some lemons! I felt totally lost but then I managed to find something cool to study and I’m sure others can do the same.

Once restrictions were lifted and the briefings were paused, I had a nice breather from hearing the word obviously every day. However now that the briefings are a weekly thing, I thought I’d share my findings so you can enjoy having your ears prick up every time Ashy or the Chief Minister says “well obviously Paul”. Have fun and be sure to let me know how many times you hear it!