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 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.
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.