Word of the year in 2020 – the year of the pandemic

 In Grammar, Modern English

Last year we noted the rise of the use of certain words like ‘unprecedented’ because of the unique challenges of the pandemic. We weren’t the only ones. Oxford Languages (part of Oxford University Press) noted that ‘it became apparent that 2020 is not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single “word of the year”’. So rather than report on one word of the year they reported on Words of an Unprecedented Year. Here are just a few of the words they selected.

Words Related to the Pandemic

As you can imagine many of us quickly became well versed in medical words that were previously on the peripheral of our lives. The Report spends a great deal outlining some of these words. They include:

Covid-19: a new word first reported by the World Health organisation on 11th February 2020. This word is an abbreviation of coronavirus diseases 2019.

Pandemic: is a disease which has spread widely across a nation, region or world (versus epidemic where a disease is limited to community).

Social distancing: this word arose in the mid-20th century but was rare in usage until March 2020 as governments introduced measures to curb the spread of the disease.

social distancing (noun). the action or practice of maintaining a certain physical distance from, or limiting physical contact with, another person or people (especially family and friends), especially in order to avoid catching or transmitting an infectious disease, or as one of a number of public health measures designed to inhibit its spread

Remote/Remotely: a word dating back to 15th century. Previously used together with words like village (remote village) and control (remote control), it is now being used more with words like learning (remote learning), and working (remote working). Here at TALK we certainly saw an increase in our use of this word as we moved to online classes. You can find out more about that here.

Honorable mentions in this section

  • ‘Rona’: an informal word abbreviation of the word corona.
  • ‘BC’: a humorous reference to a time ‘before coronavirus’.
  • Unmute’: Previously a word that was rare has seen a 500% rise in use.

Words related to the Environment

Bushfire: this word rose in usage following the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires, the worst fires in Australia on record.

Anthropause: coined in June 2020 this words is comprised of the prefix ‘anthro-’ meaning ‘related to humans’ and the word ‘pause’. It refers to the global slowdown of human travel and movement within and between places resulting in refreshing natural consequences e.g. fish in the canals of Venice.

Words related to Social Media and Social Movements

Related to the rise in social tensions across the United States several words, already in usage before 2020 saw significant increase in use.

Black Lives Matter (BLM): frequency close to 130 per million tokens.

Systematic Racism: ‘from 2019 to 2020, the frequency per million tokens for systematic racism has increased by 1,623%’

Black Lives Matter (noun). a movement formed to campaign against systemic racism and violence against black people

Words Related to Politics

Early in January 2020 the two words that had the highest frequency per million tokens were ‘impeachment’ and ‘acquittal’. The former was highest in usage during the trial to impeach, now former President Donald Trump, while the latter increased in February at the end of the trial.

Later in the year as election preparation ramped up the word ‘mail-in’ and its other variations saw a 3000% increase in use

For more detail on all these words check out the report here.

Collins Dictionary

This publication went another route and named a single word of the year – ‘Lockdown’. In 2019 the word was used a recorded 4000 times. In 2020 its usage dramatically increased to more than a quarter million!

lockdown (noun): the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction, and access to public spaces.

As you can see there were so many words that were important in 2020. As we approach the end of the first quarter of this we’re already wondering what words will mark 2021?


Feature Photo by Pisit Heng from Unspalsh
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