Language Corner

Our year of pandemic words

January 14, 2021
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (blue) infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (red), isolated from a patient sample. Image via NIAID.

Language Corner aims to inform and entertain, and often discusses words and phrases in the news.

THOUGH THESE FIRST FEW DAYS have already given us quite a year, let us not forget 2020 and the words that categorized it.

As we do every year, here’s a roundup of some of the “Words of the Year” announced by different entities and organizations. As we have written, the decisions on what makes a WOTY are usually made in two ways: by a popularity contest or by people who think about the values and uses of words. With few exceptions, this year’s class focuses on the emergence of the novel coronavirus, a global experience.

Because 2020 was so extraordinary, a number of the usual suspects did unusual things. For example, Oxford University Press, which usually names a single word, instead issued Words of an Unprecedented Year, a report by its lexicographers, who “examine, in detail, the themes that were a focus for our language monitoring this year, including covid-19 and all its related vocabulary, political and economic volatility, social activism, the environment, and the rapid uptake of new technologies and behaviours to support remote working and living.” (Oxford is based in British English but covers its offshoots as well.) 

Based mostly on lookups in its online dictionaries, Oxford noted regional differences for similar phenomena. It said, for example, that “depending on where you are in the world, you may have experienced a ‘circuit breaker’, ‘lockdown’, or have been asked to ‘shelter-in-place’, all words that saw huge increases in usage from March.” 

Oxford listed forty-seven WOTYs. The top sixteen, arranged chronologically by when each spiked in lookups, were “bushfire,” “impeachment,” “acquittal,” “coronavirus,” “covid-19,” “lockdown,” “social distancing,” “reopening” (if only), “Black Lives Matter,” “cancel culture,” “bipoc,” “mail-in,” “Belarusian,” “moonshot,” “superspeader,” and “net zero.” (If you don’t know why some of those words made the list, this explanation might help. For discussion of how Oxford examines usage for WOTY, browse this slideshow.)

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Though Oxford used “unprecedented” in the title of its WOTY presentation, “unprecedented” itself did not make the short list. But it was the People’s Choice WOTY for, which runs parallel contests, one for popularity by lookup and one for popularity by votes.

For lookups, “pandemic” was’s WOTY. But, like Oxford, noted that this was an “unprecedented” year in language: “And just as the pandemic upended life in 2020,” a press release said, “it also reshaped language—driving not only record searches for new or unfamiliar terms, but a record in the number of related additions made to” Among those additions were “fomites,” “shelter in place,” and “germaphobe,” as well as portmanteaus and coinages based on pandemic-related terms, like “covidiot,” “doomscrolling,” “rona,” and “Zoom fatigue.”

Merriam-Webster, where the WOTY is based on lookups, also went with “pandemic.” Lookups for the word started to tick up in January. On February 3, lookups were up 1,621 percent from 2019, M-W said. “People were clearly paying attention to the news and to early descriptions of the nature of this disease. That initial February spike in lookups didn’t fall off—it grew. By early March, the word was being looked up an average of 4,000% over 2019 levels.” When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus to be a “pandemic,” lookups spiked by 115,806 percent over the same day a year earlier. And they stayed high, “even as searches for other related terms, such as coronavirus and covid-19, have waned.” (We STILL have not settled on a single spelling of the coinage that stands for “COronaVIrus Disease.”)

Other words that saw significant spikes in lookups at Merriam-Webster included “defund,” “mamba” (following the death of Kobe Bryant, nicknamed the Black Mamba), “malarkey” (used frequently by Joe Biden), and “kraken” (when the Seattle hockey team chose this mythical sea beast as its name, not to mention when lawyers for President Trump, in statements undermining the legitimacy of Biden’s electoral victory, kept threatening to “release the kraken” of evidence that Trump had won the election. The kraken stayed unreleased).

Lots of others got in on the action. A popular vote in New Zealand chose “doomscrolling,” which defines as “the practice of obsessively checking online news for updates, especially on social media feeds, with the expectation that the news will be bad.” The Cambridge Dictionary chose “quarantine,” which had both the most search spikes and page views; a posting on Thrive Global, a media company founded by Arianna Huffington devoted to combating burnout, chose “resiliency”; and lexicographers at the Collins Dictionary chose “lockdown.”

The American Dialect Society takes a slightly different approach to its WOTY deliberations. The ADS claims to be the first to declare a WOTY, and has done so since 1990. Its decisions are based on a popular vote of members after some finalists are determined by a smaller panel. In 2020, anyone could vote on the WOTY. (Full disclosure, this columnist, a member of ADS, was part of the nominating panel and the voting group.)

Though the ADS is a more scholarly organization, it does not import a lot of gravitas to its WOTY decisions. “In conducting the vote, they act in fun and do not pretend to be officially inducting words into the English language,” its website says. “Instead, they are highlighting that language change is normal, ongoing, and entertaining.” Its choice for WOTY gets right at the heart of the year: “covid.” The ADS also has categories of WOTYs, some of which are shaped by the year’s biggest topics.  

Instead of having a digital WOTY as it has in the past, the ADS created two new categories, hopefully temporary. The Zoom WOTY was “you’re muted,” that “weary refrain on Zoom to remind someone to unmute when speaking,” and its corona-related WOTY was “social distancing.”

Our personal favorite didn’t even make the finals, probably because it couldn’t be printed in most newspapers. Let’s just say it began with four letters and ended in “show.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.