Oxford Dictionaries: 2020 has too many Words of the Year to name just one

Instead, the OED says ‘a year that has left us speechless’ is best reflected by expanding its annual selection to a whole list

For the first time, the Oxford English Dictionary has chosen not to name a word of the year, describing 2020 as “a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word”. Instead, from “unmute” to “mail-in”, and from “coronavirus” to “lockdown”, the eminent reference work has announced its “words of an ‘unprecedented’ year”.

On Monday, the dictionary said that there were too many words to sum up the events of 2020. Tracking its vast corpus of more than 11bn words found in web-based news, blogs and other text sources, its lexicographers revealed what the dictionary described as “seismic shifts in language data and precipitous frequency rises in new coinage” over the past 12 months.

Coronavirus, one of its words of the year, is a term that dates back to the 1960s, although it was previously mainly used by scientists. By March this year it was one of the most frequently used nouns in the English language. “Covid-19”, first recorded on 11 February in a report by the World Health Organization, quickly overtook coronavirus in frequency of use, noted the dictionary.

One of the year’s most remarkable linguistic developments, according to the OED, has been the extent to which scientific terms have entered general discourse, as we have all become armchair epidemiologists, with most of us now familiar with the term “R number”.

“Before 2020 this was a term known mainly to epidemiologists; now non-experts routinely talk about ‘getting the R down’ or ‘bringing R below 1’. Other terms that have become much more common in everyday discourse this year include ‘flatten the curve’ and ‘community transmission’,” said the dictionary.

Use of the phrase “following the science”, it added, has increased in frequency more than 1,000% compared with 2019.

Other coronavirus-related language cited by the OED includes “pandemic”, which has seen usage increase by more than 57,000% this year, as well as “circuit breaker”, “lockdown”, “shelter-in-place”, “bubbles”, “face masks” and “key workers”.

The revolution in working habits has also affected language, with both “remote” and “remotely” seeing more than 300% growth in use since March. “On mute” and “unmute” have seen 500% rises since March, while the portmanteaus “workation” and “staycation” increased by 500% and 380% respectively.

Other news events have also been reflected in language. In the early months of 2020, there were peaks in usage of “impeachment” and “acquittal”, and “mail-in” has seen an increase of 3,000%. Use of “Black Lives Matter” and “BLM” also surged, as did the term “QAnon”, up by 5,716% on last year. The phrase “conspiracy theory”, meanwhile, has almost doubled in usage between October 2019 and October 2020. Use of “Brexit”, however, has dropped by 80% this year.

“What words best describe 2020? A strange year? A crazy year? A lost year? Oxford Languages’ monitor corpus of English shows a huge upsurge in usage of each of those phrases compared to 2019,” said the OED in its report. “Though what was genuinely unprecedented this year was 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.”

Previous choices for word of the year from Oxford have included “climate emergency” and “post truth”. Rival dictionary Collins chose “lockdown” for its word of the year earlier this month.

“I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had,” said Oxford Dictionaries president Casper Grathwohl. “The team at Oxford were identifying hundreds of significant new words and usages as the year unfolded, dozens of which would have been a slam dunk for word of the year at any other time. It’s both unprecedented and a little ironic – in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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