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Can We Have a Word…or Two or Three?

As we finally near the end of 2020 and look forward to 2021, a vocabulary check gives clarity to what is on everyone’s minds. Several dictionaries have announced their words of the year, and there are few surprises.

Both and Merriam-Webster’s word of the year (WOTY) is pandemic, “based upon a statistical analysis of words that are looked up in extremely high numbers in our online dictionary while also showing a significant year-over-year increase in traffic,” according to Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster saw the first big leap in searches, an increase of 1,621% over the previous year, for “pandemic” on February 3rd, when the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. was released from the hospital. Lookups continued to surge and by March, searches were up an average of 4,000% over 2019. While other terms, such as “coronavirus” and “COVID-19” had dramatic increases then waned, “pandemic” has maintained its “popularity.”

Taking a different tack, The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford) was unable to declare a single WOTY for 2020, since “It quickly became apparent that 2020 is not a year that could be neatly accommodated in a single ‘word of the year.’” Instead it issued a report, “Words of an Unprecedented Year” that explores “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.” Oxford also highlighted key words that rose to “prominence” in certain months, such as “bushfire” in January, when the terrible Australian fire season occurred, “COVID-19, lockdown, social distancing, and reopening,” all of which took off beginning in March, and “Black Lives Matter, cancel culture and BIPOC” starting in June. It is fascinating that many are either new or recently introduced words or words that are being used in a completely new context, such as “mail-in,” which saw a jump of 3,000% in usage versus 2019.

Finishing our WOTY tour, Collins Dictionary selected “lockdown” as its word of the year because “it is a unifying experience for billions of people across the world.” The dictionary saw over 250,000 uses of lockdown, defined as “the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interactions, and access to public spaces,” in 2020 versus 4,000 in 2019. Other words on the Collins Dictionary short list include “coronavirus, BLM, key worker, furlough, self isolate, social distancing, and, on a lighter note, Megxit, TikToker, and Mukbang.

Words are powerful tools, helping us define both the topical and the enduring. They have the power to help us build community and experience events from a common foundation, as well as leave a record for the future.