The words of the year

2019 was “Climate Emergency”. 2018 was “Toxic”. 2017 was “Youthquake”.

This year, given the “phenomenal breadth of language change and development in 2020”, Oxford Dictionaries were unable to sum the past 12 months with one single word. Instead, they’ve opted for several “Words of an Unprecedented Year”. 

“Unprecedented” itself is a word that has seen its usage skyrocket. Back in the Spring I lost count of how many times that word crept up in news reports, emails, marketing communications…

What’s interesting in the Oxford Dictionaries report is their highlighting of “the hyper-speed at which the English-speaking world amassed a new collective vocabulary relating to the coronavirus, and how quickly it became, in many instances, a core part of the language.”

This is undoubtedly true. How many of us now sit around talking about R-rates, lockdowns, furloughs and circuit-breakers without giving these terms a second thought. We’ve absorbed this vocabulary as if through osmosis, like a child acquiring a new language. 

Our ability to adapt, learn and change is impressive, in both our language and our behaviours. A year ago, the concept of lockdowns and mask-wearing would have seemed completely outlandish. On a par with the tinfoil hats!

Alongside our incorporation of epidemiological vocabulary into everyday life, Oxford dictionaries also highlighted “technology and remote working”, “the environment”, “social movements and social media” and “politics and economics” as arenas that filled with new words.

The report’s look into the word “remote” was fascinating. In 2019 it was most statistically likely to appear alongside the terms, “village”, “island”, “control” and “location”. 

In 2020, “remote” is most likely to be seen partnering “learning”, “working”, “workforce” and instruction. The way we use the word “zoom” has seen similar change.

One piece of pandemic vocabulary that did pass me by, “Blursday”! Apparently, this is the feeling of the days blending into one another and time beginning to lose its meaning. Since March its use on social media has spiked.

In 2019 the Oxford Word of the Year and its entire shortlist was made up of words relating to climate and the environment. As the pandemic took hold environmental coverage fell. However, one completely new word coined in 2020 was “anthropause”. It refers to the slowdown of human activity during the pandemic and the beneficial impacts this had on the natural world.

Social movements and consciousness also surged in 2020. The terms “Black Lives Matter” and “BLM” saw an explosion in their usage in June and July of this year. References to “Juneteenth”, an annual US holiday commemorating the end of slavery, occurred 10 times more frequently in 2020 than in 2019.

In terms of politics and economics the focus was on the USA. The year 2020 saw peaks in the usage of the words, “impeachment”, “acquittal” and “mail-in”, a reference to US postal voters. Although it was nice to have a break, perhaps worryingly the word “Brexit” was used 80% less this year! 

This was the first time that I’d read the full report on the Oxford Words of the Year. It’s amazing to see the year in review reflected through language. It also drives home the ever changing, nature of our vocabulary. Let’s see what the 2021 list has in store for us!

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