Traditionally speaking, the team that publishes the Oxford English Dictionary picks a “word of the year” — a word or expression that has attracted significant interest over the course of the past 12 months. It’s a way to capture the mood or lasting impact that a particular year has had on us all; for example, 2019’s word was “climate emergency,” 2014 was “vape,” 2009 was “unfriend,” and 2005 was “podcast.” But this year — one in which all semblance of normalcy has abandoned us — the OED could not pick one word. One word was not going to cut it, so this year, we needed a full 16 of them.
The OED explains:
The English language, like all of us, has had to adapt rapidly and repeatedly this year. Our team of expert lexicographers have captured and analysed this lexical data every step of the way. As our Word of the Year process started and this data was opened up, it quickly became apparent that 2020 is not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single “word of the year,” so we have decided to report more expansively on the phenomenal breadth of language change and development over the year in our Words of an Unprecedented Year report.
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The words it chose, below in chronological order, is the most tumultuous of walks through memory lane. Here they are, along with Oxford Language’s descriptions for why they were chosen.
- Bushfire: “One of the defining climatic events of the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 was the Australian bushfire season, the worst on record.”
- Impeachment: “A hot topic in January when the trial to impeach Donald Trump began.” (Was that really this year?)
- Acquittal: “Peaked in February at the conclusion of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.” (Ah, that was fast.)
- Coronavirus: “One of the more dramatic examples of increased usage, by March this year it was one of the most frequently used nouns in the English language, after being used to designate the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
- COVID-19: “A completely new word this year, first recorded in a report by the World Health Organisation as an abbreviation of coronavirus disease 2019. It quickly overtook coronavirus in frequency.”
- Lockdown: “The preferred term in most Anglophone countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, for government-enforced quarantine measures in response to the spread of Covid-19.”
- Social distancing: “Surged in frequency as governments across the world introduced measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19.”
- Reopening: “Towards the Northern Hemisphere summer more hopeful words increased in frequency, including reopening (of shops, businesses, etc.).”
- Black Lives Matter: “Exploded in usage beginning in June of this year, remaining at elevated levels for the rest of the year as protests against law enforcement agencies over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other black Americans took root in communities across the United States and across the world.”
- Cancel Culture: “Many societal tensions that characterised the year saw a significant rise in usage, such as cancel culture, the culture of boycotting and withdrawing support from public figures whose words and actions are considered socially unacceptable.”
- BIPOC: “Usage surged for BIPOC, an abbreviation of black, indigenous, and other people of colour.”
- Mail-In: “A big political focus as far as word use increase is concerned has been the U.S. postal service as a means of casting votes in these troubled times, with mail-in seeing an increase in use of 3,000% compared to last year.”
- Belarusian: “The August re-election of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus saw the adjective Belarusian rise up the corpus charts rapidly as the story made the news around the world.”
- Moonshot: “Had a rocket-powered ascent to significance in September as the name of a UK government program for mass Covid testing.
- Superspreader: “Dates to the 1970s, but became significantly more frequent this year. There was a particular spike in usage in October, mainly with reference to the well-publicised spread of cases in the White House.”
- Net Zero: On the rise as the year draws to an end: the recent increase partly relates to the historic pledge made by President Xi Jinping in September, that China will be carbon neutral by 2060.”
The Oxford English Dictionary team says the words are chosen by a group of expert lexicographers who identify new and emerging English words and track their usage. Here’s to hoping 2021’s “word” is something like “thank god that’s fucking over with.”