Oxfords 2020 Word of the Year? Well, Its Unprecedented - Times of India

 timesofindia.indiatimes.com  11/25/2020 08:00:21  21  New York Times | Nov
Oxford Languages annual Word of the Year is usually a tribute to the protean creativity of English and the reality of constant linguistic change, throwing a spotlight on zeitgeisty neologisms like selfie, vape and unfriend. Sure, it isnt all lexicographic fun and frolic. 2017 saw the triumph of toxic. Last year, the winner was climate emergency. But then came 2020, and you-know-what.

This year, Oxford Languages, the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary, has forgone the selection of a single word in favor of highlighting the coronavirus pandemics swift and sudden linguistic effect on English.

What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change, Katherine Connor Martin, the companys head of product, said in an interview. This event was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year.

The Word of the Year is based on usage evidence drawn from Oxfords continually updated corpus of more than 11 billion words, gathered from news sources across the English-speaking world. The selection is meant to reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations of the preceding year, while also having lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.

The 2020 report does highlight some zippy new coinages, like Blursday (which captures the way the week blends together), covidiots (you know who you are) and doomscrolling (who, me?). But mostly, it underlines how the pandemic has utterly dominated public conversation, and given us a new collective vocabulary almost overnight.

Take, for starters, pandemic: Use of the term increased more than 57,000% since last year. Coronavirus  a word coined in 1968, but until this year little used outside medical contexts  also surged, breaking away from run-of-the-mill topical words.

Back in January, it was neck-and-neck with impeachment, then surging because of the proceedings against President Donald Trump. But by April, coronavirus had become one of the most common nouns in English, overtaking even stalwarts like time.

And that, Martin said, is highly unusual, perhaps even unprecedented (another word, by the way, whose usage soared, according to the report). Usually, when a topical word surges, she said, it becomes more common relative to other topical words, but not relative to words we all say in English all the time.


The Oxford report also highlights words and phrases relating to social justice, including Black Lives Matter, Juneteenth, decolonize, and allyship, some of which surged dramatically starting in late May, amid the protests following the killing of George Floyd in police custody. But those increases, while notable, were nowhere near those of pandemic-related terms.
And the pandemic may have actually reduced the frequency of other topical words. Last year, Oxford released an all-climate related shortlist, topped by climate emergency. But in March, as the pandemic took hold, the frequency of the word climate itself abruptly plunged by almost 50%. (Usage has since rebounded a bit, and the report also flagged the emergence of some new climate-related terms, like anthropause, proposed in an article in the journal Nature in June to describe the sudden drastic reduction in human mobility, and its impact on the natural world.) The pandemic turned once-obscure public-health terminology like social distancing or flatten the curve into household terms, and made words and phrases like lockdown and stay-at-home common. More subtly, it also altered usage patterns for ho-hum words like remote and remotely. Previously, the most common collocates (as lexicographers call words that appear most frequently together) of remote were village, island and control. This year, Martin said, they were learning, working and work force.

The Oxford report also highlights increased use of in-person, often in retronyms, as lexicographers refer to a new term for an existing thing that distinguishes the original from a new variant. (For example: land line or cloth diaper.) In 2020, it became increasingly necessary to specify in-person voting, learning, worship and so on.


Most years, a lot of the fun of Oxfords shortlist comes from portmanteaus, or blend words, like mansplain or broflake. But this year, even the neologisms were a bit downbeat. For every covidiot and Blursday, there was a twindemic (the concurrence of two epidemics) and an infodemic (an anxiety-arousing explosion of pandemic-related information). So & is it fair to say that in 2020, even the words were, well, kind of terrible?

Martin declined to be so negative. But she confessed to some nostalgia for the days of playful, dare-you-to-put-it-in-the-dictionary coinages like lumbersexual, from Oxfords 2015 shortlist.

She said she hoped 2021 would bring more fun, positive words that didnt seem to hold the weight of the world on their shoulders.
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