As 2020 finally draws to a close, it would be far from presumptuous to say it will be missed. 2020 has proven to be, quite frankly, unparalleled. As we avidly stride into 2021, surely only the fainthearted would take on the steep task of trying to summarise the year into just one word. Yet the team of lexicographers at Oxford English Dictionary were faced with the task of just that.
Conflicting with their standing traditions, Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has struggled to narrow down their findings to a singular term for their annual Word of the Year. In precedented times, the word would stand as a tribute to the English language, and as a reflection and suitable summary of the most popular, most used, most overused or first coined words of the previous 365 days. Usually taking the form of the latest zeitgeist creation, OED has formerly crowned words like “selfie”, “fake news”, “climate change”. But in true 2020 fashion, this year’s campaign is a bit different.
The lexicographers at OED have described 2020 as “a year that could not be accommodated in one single word” and have therefore designated a selection of words instead. Their report is said to cover the themes of the English language that were at the forefront of our minds this year; from Covid-19 and its expansive associated jargon, to social activism, political, economic, environmental and technological related vocabulary. So, without further ado, here are some of the words that OED believed to have defined 2020:
Covid-19, WFH, lockdown, circuit breaker, support-bubbles, keyworkers, Black Lives Matter, and furlough.
With countless seismic events occurring this year, lifestyles drastically changing across the globe, and public conversation being dominated by the pandemic, it is hardly surprising that this literary revolution has occurred.
As the BBC recorded, the use of the word ‘pandemic’ has increased by 57,000%, ‘following the science’ by 1,000% and ‘unmute’ by 500%. Swiftly and gladly moving away from any Covid-related terminology, at the start of the year, the use of the words ‘impeachment’ and ‘acquittal’ increased by 3,000%. During the summer, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘BLM’ usage surged significantly. And to end the year in true British fashion, the use of ‘Brexit’ has fallen by 80%. As we have all adapted to the ‘new normal’, which I might add is a phrase that will always haunt me, some entertaining neologisms have appeared in the English language this year. Despite some words reminding us of the cruel actualities of 2020, other literary inventions did manage to bring a bit of cheer: ‘Quarantinis’ (a cocktail one drinks whilst in quarantine), ‘Coronacoaster’ (the emotional experience of life during the pandemic) and ‘Covidiot’ (a slang insult for someone who disregards the virus health and safety guidelines).
The overwhelming irony is that 2020 has left so many of us speechless, yet it is impossible to summarise the year into just one word. Radical, substantial, heart-breaking, even difficult, none seem to do 2020 justice. So, perhaps we shouldn’t try to limit it solely to one word, but instead learn from its evident limitations on the English language and continue with what we’ve been practicing all year: adapting and overcoming.
When opening up this question to others, most responses were, as you can probably guess, colourful (to say the least). Yet, the recurring answer was always ‘unprecedented’. In spite of any criticism that OED may have received for changing their tradition to accommodate to 2020 – this is just one of many sacrifices that have been made this year across the world. So, here’s hoping to just the one word to describe 2021. Maybe ‘precedented’, ‘normality’, or ‘interaction’. However, my bet’s on ‘better’.
By Sophia Hill
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