A Word from Robbin

Robbin Orbison

Word of the Year, “WOTY”

noun: any of various assessments as to the most important word or expression in the public sphere during a specific year

If you were asked to sum up 2020 in one word, what would it be? Insane. Ridiculous. Surreal. Words like that come to mind for me. Let’s see what the experts say.

Every year the luminaries of the lexicography world give us their pronouncement of the word that stands out the most for that year. The criteria are diverse and there are a lot of players at this word-shout-out game. I’m sticking with the Big Three: Merriam-Webster, Dictionary.com, and the venerated Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Merriam-Webster has named pandemic as the WOTY for 2020. Definition: an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and typically affects a significant portion of the population. Derived from the Greek pan (“all”) and demos (“people”).

This may not be surprising. That word has been in our faces all year long. Did you know how much it’s been in your face? Merriam-Webster bases their selection, at least in part, on the number of dictionary lookup searches. They’ve got lots of stats you can enjoy on their website, but this one jumped out: On March 11, 2020, the day the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the increase in lookups for the word over the same day in 2019 was 115,806%!  

Jumping over to Dictionary.com, they also have named pandemic the 2020 WOTY. Like Merriam-Webster, they cite massive lookup volumes but go further to elevate the word for having contributed to a major reshaping of our language. Think about the number of new gems in your vocabulary because of the pandemic. Dictionary.com mentions as evidence dozens of words and phrases that were previously obscure, or at least rarely used in conversation, including asymptomatic, contact tracing, herd immunity, lockdown, PPE, shelter in place, social distancing, essential/non-essential, viral load, maskne, quaranteam, and, my personal favorite, coronacoaster.

And now for the very thorough folks at the Oxford English Dictionary. For the first time ever, they found themselves unable to select a single word to associate with this unprecedented year – in fact “unprecedented” itself made their list of multiple words of the year. There are so many they broke them down into categories. A sampling:

Coronavirus, COVID-19 and Related Words includes various abbreviations like C-19, corona and even rona (really?); words describing the times, like pre-COVID, post-coronavirus and BC (“before COVID”); and words describing individual behavior like covidiot and coronials. (Haven’t heard that one? It’s the generation of babies conceived during lockdown).

Pandemic and Other -demics covers words formed from pandemic or epidemic, like infodemic (the explosion of information and misinformation associated with the pandemic), and twindemic (referring to a flu upsurge coinciding with the pandemic).

Social Distancing, Lockdown and Other Measures includes words we are sick of, like lockdown, quarantine, stay-at-home order, and self-isolate. Cleaning words abound, including handwashing, hand sanitizer, deep cleaning, and fogging (collectively referred to as “hygiene theater”).

Masks and Coverings got their own category chock full of equipment descriptors (face mask, medical mask, surgical mask, face covering, face shield), and words about behavior vis a vis the equipment (mask up, anti-masker, mask-shaming)

Epidemiological Terms includes armchair epidemiologists, following the science, reproductive number, superspreader, and who can forget the golden oldie flatten the curve.

Technology and Remote Working (of course my favorite category!) includes common but enormously surging words like remote and remotely, previously lesser used words like unmute, and newly created words like Zoombombing (which we are apparently supposed to spell with a capital Z).

The Environment got its own category, a welcome nod to the fact that other things did exist this year besides a pandemic. Terms like bushfire and climate emergency made the list, as did an interesting new one: anthropause, which refers to the global shutdown of travel and other human activity and the very welcome resultant benefits to the planet and wildlife. Net zero and staycation made it in there too.

There are more categories and more words in the 38-page (it’s the OED after all) report entitled Words of an Unprecedented YearAnd in case you were wondering, yes, they do include categories on politics, civics, and social justice.

What a year.

So how to conclude whirlwind tour of the year in words? I’ll turn to some words of wisdom from about 2,020 years ago, slightly updated:

Peace on earth, good will toward everyone

From all of us at CapeSpace, our best wishes for a happy and safe holiday season and a prosperous 2021.

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