At the start of a new year, I’m not so much about resolutions as I am about words.
My inner word nerd is compelled to look back at the year just ended to see how language has evolved, based largely on events of the year. This is also the time when lexographers and groups of linguists, historians, grammarians and others interested in language evolution publish their Words of the Year lists.
It is geek-heaven time for those of us who savor the written and spoken word.
Surprising to not a single person on the planet, the chosen words of 2020 all center around COVID-19, though some of the runners-up widen the net to include other society-shaking events of the year.
It’s all pretty grim stuff this year, so let me start with the one-and-only lighter popular-culture item I could find. Oxford Dictionaries noted the word Brexit saw an 80% drop in usage this year, while Collins Dictionaries included in its runners-up list the word Megxit, which is described as the withdrawal of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the duke and duchess of Sussex, from their royal duties.
My favorite sources are the Oxford Dictionaries and the American Dialect Society, but Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, Cambridge, Collins and others also have their selections – most based on how often the words have been looked up or how their usage reflects the mood and focus of the past year. Oxford also has a Children’s Word of the Year, based on essays written in a BBC 500 Words story writing competition (136,000 kids submitted entries this year).
For the first time Oxford did not select just one word or phrase, describing 2020 as “a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word” and announced instead its “words of an ‘unprecedented’ year.”
Oxford noted that one of the most remarkable linguistic developments has been the emergence of scientific terms in general conversation “as we all have become armchair epidemiologists.” Among Oxford’s words and phrases of 2020 are Coronavirus, COVID-19, Following the Science, Pandemic, Shelter-in-Place, Face Masks and Key Workers, among others.
Oxford also noted spikes in the use of words such as Impeachment, Mail-In, Back Lives Matter and QAnon. Looking farther back, Oxford’s Word of the Year for 2019 was Climate Emergency; it was Toxic in 2018.
The children’s writing competition sponsored by Oxford and the BBC revealed Coronavirus as the Oxford Children’s Word of the Year. Brexit was the winner last year and Plastic the year before. The stories ran the gamut from realistic to prophetic, hopeful to sweet. One girl, aged 8, wrote in her entry: “That night I had an interesting dream, a magical sparkling unicorn came and whispered to me the secret ingredients of the cure for the Coronavirus.”
The American Dialect Society chose COVID for its Word of the Year. The word didn’t exist a year ago, said Ben Zimmer, chair of the dialect society’sNew Words Committee, “and now it has come to define our lives in 2020.”
Some of the runners-up considered by the 13-year-old organization were also fascinating, such as Doomscrolling, the habit of obsessively scanning social media and websites for bad news. The American Dialect Society also selected key words in a variety of individual categories. Before Times, the time before the beginning of the pandemic, was considered Most Useful; Abolish/Defund was deemed the Most Significant Political Word. And its Euphemism of the Year was Essential (workers, labor, businesses), “used for people, often underpaid, who are actually treated as expendable because they are required to work and thus risk infection from coronavirus.”
Pandemic was chosen by both Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com, each citing the phenomenal increase in dictionary searches of the word (Merriam-Webster showed a 115,806% spike in dictionary traffic for Pandemic).
Collins Dictionary selected Lockdown, while Cambridge chose Quarantine, also noting that the word has experienced an expansion of its original meaning to include a period of time when people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely. Also on Collins’ Word of the Year short list was BLM (Black Lives Matter), Coronavirus, Key Worker, Furlough and Social Distancing.
In a New York Times article last month, 20 words were suggested as best capturing what it felt to be alive in 2020 – most, of course, centering in COVID-19 and its effects. Most notable was Black Lives Matter. Also Contact Tracing, Essential Workers, Flatten the Curve, Super-Spreader, Voter Fraud, Wildfires and Zoom.
NYT’s two almost whimsical choices were Blursday, whatever day of the week it might happen to be being hard to decipher since the passage of time has become so unreliable, and Virtual Happy Hour, a kind of socializing online or, as the writer put it, “we just kind of drunk in front of our computers a whole bunch.”
Sad to say, gone are the years when the defining words were such sweet things as Geek, Tweet, Selfie and Binge Watch.
I think 2020 and the words that popped out from it were best described by Oxford Dictionaries president Casper Grathwohl, who said: “I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had … It’s both unprecedented and a little ironic – in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other.”