In March 2020, as cases of COVID-19 were found in Aotearoa New Zealand, the government moved to eliminate community transmission of the virus through self-isolation. During this month, as the population discussed if, when and how households would be asked to stay at home, terms such as lockdown—the state of (national) closure—and bubble—the household isolating together—became common parts of everyday conversation.
In this article, we blend quantitative and qualitative research methodologies from corpus linguistics, literary studies and the medical humanities to compare the affective range of the terms lockdown and bubble as they were used in tweets containing the hashtag #Covid19NZ. Both lockdown and bubble are metaphors of containment that provided different ways of understanding and engaging with government stay-at-home measures by highlighting and minimising different aspects of the event. We found that while the strong, prison connotations of lockdown were reflected in discussions of the measure as a tough form of control exercised from above, the lighter associations of the term bubble led to the perception of this measure as more malleable and conducive to exertion of individual control. Yet, although the seemingly restrictive range of lockdown made it a useful term for the expression of negative affect, the term was actually more frequently used with neutral or unclear affect to share information. Conversely, while bubble tweets expressed more positive sentiment, humour and support towards government stay-at-home measures, this rendered the term surprisingly restrictive in its potential uses: its lightness makes it an effective way to limit the expression of antilockdown sentiment. As Kiwi Twitter users faced the uncertainty of the first COVID-19 lockdown, the pre-existing connotations of the metaphors used to frame stay-at-home measures also helped frame their own experiences of these measures.