Every year, the world’s major dictionaries look at their data and announce their “word of the year”. And even though it’s based on search trends, the winning words typically go in all manner of lexical directions. In the past, we’ve had duck milkshakes, metrosexuals and even emojis. But choosing what went viral in 2020? Well, that had a distinct theme, as most drew their picks from the same virus-shaped box. Are you ready to find out what was chosen? Let’s go…
America’s biggest dictionary chose what has emerged as the ‘catch all’ (excuse the pun) term for the entire COVID-19 disease this year. Based on their statistical analysis, starting in late January (when the first cases made headlines), searches for the word ‘pandemic’ spiked – some 1600% more than the previous year by 3 February. This had spiked to 4000% higher in early March, despite the World Health Organisation at that point not declaring such a thing. All that changed on 11 March – a pandemic was declared and searches were 115000% higher than the same day a year earlier. One of the confusions early on was the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic – the latter essentially covering a far greater area. (We did a Q&A on this at the time if you want more detail.)
American Dialect Society: COVID
Well, you can’t fault it. Clean and to the point. These guys take picking words of the year very seriously – with 2020 the first time it had been performed virtually. This year’s ceremony took place via Zoom on 17 December when more than 300 attendees declared “Covid” the winner. They noted that the word wasn’t even really a word a year ago, yet was now integral in defining so many things across the planet; “Covid relief” packages, “Covid emergencies” and yes, even “Covidiots”.
Oxford English Dictionary: TOO MANY TO PICK
Across the Atlantic, Oxford did something it had never done before. It declared 2020 as “a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word” (but seriously though, can any year ever be?). In 2018, Oxford chose “toxic”; in 2019 it was “climate emergency”. But this year the lexical smorgasbord was clearly too big and tasty – with a range of contenders all apparently loved equally by a parent who didn’t want to play favourites. It offered up “unmute” and “face mask” alongside “coronavirus”, “flatten the curve” and “community transmission”. Other siblings included “bubble”, “staycation”, “remote” as well as “black lives matter”. It was less “spoiled for choice” and more “spoiled by choice” as they threw in the towel and declared it an unprecedented year. (Even the word “unprecedented” was up there!)
Collins Dictionary: LOCKDOWN
Across town, Oxford’s rival Collins chose “lockdown” to sum up 2020 – registering a quarter of a million usages compared to just 4000 last year. And it makes sense – with nearly every government around the world (yes, yes, we see you Sweden) using some kind of lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. That’s not to say that the word didn’t have competition of course in this busy year. Other contenders included “BLM”, “furlough”, “key worker”, “social distancing” and the very British “MEGexit” – used to describe Harry and Megan’s retreat from royal duties… even though it feels like that happened about six years ago.
Well, that’s boring. We’ve already talked about that one. And much like the others, its people’s choice word was “unprecedented” – both fairly accurate tags for 2020 it has to be said. Another runner up was “chaos”.
This online word service was excited to announce its first ever word of the year in 2020, and it was “quarantine” – previously assigned to horses and deserted islands on Sydney harbour. The word itself arrived in English in the 1600s, and the verb (“to quarantine”) didn’t arrive until the early 1800s. “Quarantine” was originally defined as “period a ship suspected of carrying disease is kept in isolation,” – with “quaranta” the Italian for 40, as in 40 days of isolation. Thankfully, it was 14 not 40 that became the popular quarantine numero of choice in 2020…
Australian National Dictionary Centre: ISO
Last month, the ANDC declared a typically characteristic Aussie slang variant for self-isolation as its 2020 word of the year. Their criteria for deciding on the winner is that the trophy goes to a word or expression that has “gained prominence in the Australian social landscape”. It beat out other corona-related contenders along with “black summer” from the bushfires. As for “iso”, apparently its versatility and larrikin humour won the day – this popular prefix being seen in everything from “iso baking” to “iso cut” (for the terrible at-home haircut) and “iso fashion”.
Macquarie Dictionary: DOOMSCROLLING
And finally, our favourite Aussie dictionary rounds out the list with a refreshing dose of originality. It was more a case of loopholing really, by placing all the corona-related words into their own category so as not to upstage all the others. From that box, “rona” emerged the favourite, with “doughnut day” another favourite (as a description of 0 new cases). But “doomscrolling” was the official pick – defined as “the practice of continuing to read news feeds online or on social media, despite the fact that the news is predominantly negative and often upsetting”. It started on day 1 of 2020 with those awful bushfires and really, it just hasn’t stopped since. Incidentally, just this week, New Zealand also named “doomscrolling” as its word of the year.
Anyway, enough doomscrolling, that’s the end of this list.