Word of the Year 2020

alex atkins bookshelf words“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,” wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, “and next year’s words await another voice.” To that observation, we can add: this past year’s words also define the language, the conversations, or more accurately, the zeitgeist of the year. And let’s be candid — it sucked. Big time. It even challenged the editors of major dictionaries who review the stats on their respective websites to spot dramatic spikes in word lookups to determine which words capture the interest of the public. Typically, they develop a list and then debate which one merits the distinction of “word of the year.” This year, the editors could not decide on a single word to capture the essence of an annus horribilis.

For 2020 the editors of Oxford Dictionaries could not settle on one word. So they came up with the “Words of an Unprecedented Year” report. In an interview with the BBC, Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries explained, “I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had. The Oxford team was identifying hundreds of significant new words and usages as the year unfolded, dozens of which would have been a slam dunk for Word of the Year at any other time. 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.” The editors selected the following words: bushfire, acquittal, Covid-19, coronavirus, lockdown, social distancing, keyworkers, furlough, reopening, Black Lives Matter, cancel culture, mail-in, Belarusian, moonshot, netzero, support bubbles, superspreader, and conspiracy theory. 

For 2020 Word of the Year, the editors of Merriam-Webster simply looked at the metrics, and the word that showed consistent spikes in dictionary lookups throughout the year was “pandemic.” The editors explained, “On March 11th, the World Health Organization officially declared ‘that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,’ and this is the day that pandemic saw the single largest spike in dictionary traffic in 2020… [and] it has remained high in our lookups ever since, staying near the top of our word list for the past ten months.” Runners up included: coronavirus, defund, Mamba, Kraken, quarantine, Antebellum, Schadenfreude, asymptomatic, irregardless, icon, and malarkey.

For 2020 Word of the Year, the editors of Macquarie Dictionary (the Webster’s Dictionary of Australia) selected “doomscrolling,” defined as “the practice of continuing to read news feeds online or on social media, despite the fact that the news is predominantly negative and often upsetting.” They also created a special category for pandemic related language. The word they chose in that context is “rona,” the Australian slang for coronavirus. The word rona, incidentally, is an example of a coronacoinage — a neologism related to Covid-19. Runners up included: covidiot, COVID normal, Karen, pyrocumulonimbus.

For 2020 Word of the Year, the editors of Dictionary.com selected “pandemic.” The editors elaborate: “the task of choosing a single word to sum up 2020 — a year roiled by a public health crisis, a crippling economic downturn, racial injustice, political polarization, virulent public discourse, rampant disinformation, corrosion of democracy, topped off with a climate crisis — was a challenging and humbling one. But at the same time, our choice was overwhelmingly clear. From our perspective as documenters of the English language, one word kept running through the profound and manifold ways our lives have been upended—and our language so rapidly transformed—in this unprecedented year.” The pandemic not only infected millions of people, but it also spawned its own unique vocabulary: asymptomatic, contact tracing, flatten the curve, fomites, frontliner, furlough, herd immunity, hydroxychloroquine, infodemic, lockdown, long-hauler, essential/nonessential, PPE, pod, quarantine, shelter in place, social distancing, superspreader, twindemic, and viral load. The list doubles when you add all the clever coronacoinages: anti-masker, bubble, the Before Times, cluttercore, coronababy, coronacation, coronacoaster, coronacut, coronasomnia, COVID-10, covidiot, drive-by birthday, drive-in rally, maskne, quarantini, quaranteam, Zoom-bombing, Zoom fatigue, Zoom mom, and Zoom town.

For 2020 Word of the Year, Atkins Bookshelf has selected “unprecedented,” defined as has never been known or done before. If you watched news clips from just about any week from 2020, you very likely heard an anchor add to the description of an event, “This is unprecedented.” You don’t say? Everything we witnessed — from the Covid-19 crisis, climate crisis, raging brushfires, racial injustice, protests and riots, national quarantine, rampant Trumpism — was freaking unprecedented. It was exhausting, demoralizing, and depressing to watch. No wonder sales of alcohol increased dramatically over the past year. Another reason that unprecedented is the perfect word for 2020 is because it sounds like “unpresidented,” defined as “not having a president.” And that sums up the Trump presidency pretty well: a narcissistic leader who consistently rejected the truth, scientific and medical data, intelligence data, political norms, rule of law, the democratic process, and the Constitution that led to one crisis quickly followed by another. But his most irresponsible action was ignoring the advice of medical experts back in February, as reported by Bob Woodward, that led to a lethal pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans to date, and caused a crippling recession that permanently wiped out over 100,000 businesses and pushed more than 115 million people into poverty. And that is unpresidented and unprecedented in modern history.

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Read related posts:
Word of the Year 2019
Word of the Year 2018
Word of the Year 2017
Word of the Year 2016

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