2020 'Left Us Speechless.' The Word of the Year Reflects That

Oxford simply couldn't pick just one
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 23, 2020 8:24 AM CST
COVID Changed Everything. Even Oxford's Word of the Year
A year like no other, with a new language like no other.   (Getty Images/Kira-Yan)

In 2019, Oxford Languages' word (or term, rather) of the year was "climate emergency." In 2020, however, the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary ran into a conundrum: It soon realized that this year has been like no other, and one that simply couldn't be summed up by one word. And so this year's choice instead focused on "how the pandemic has utterly dominated public conversation," resulting in "a new collective vocabulary almost overnight," per the New York Times. Because COVID-19 is what's underlying much of the new vernacular, this year's list includes such ubiquitous words as "pandemic"—which saw a 57,000% increase in usage from last year—"COVID-19," and "coronavirus," which has been in use in medical circles since the late '60s, but which this year became one of the most common nouns in the English language.

Other words and terms tied to the pandemic that became commonplace: "face masks," "reopening," "social distancing," "flatten the curve," "superspreader," and "lockdown," to name a few. What the Times calls "zippy new coinage" also emerged around the virus, resulting in words like "Blursday" (to indicate the days of the week all blending together) and "doomscrolling," which seems ... self-evident. But the pandemic wasn't Oxford's only focus: Politics, social media, and social movements were also drivers of this year's new language, with "Black Lives Matter," "Juneteenth," "impeachment," "conspiracy theory," "QAnon," and "cancel culture" peppering conversations. "I've never witnessed a year in language like the one we've just had," Oxford President Casper Grathwohl tells the BBC. "In a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other." (More Oxford Word of the Year stories.)

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