The 2020 Words of the Year are…

2020 is finally over. Happy New Year! Welcome 2021 and hope this year we finally see an end to all the suffering worldwide!

2020 has been a year like no other we have seen in our lifetime for which there is no precedent in living memory. And every year, most dictionaries put out what they feel is the most important word for the year, something that encapsulates what the year has been. The German tradition, Wort des Jahres was started in 1971. The American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year is the oldest English-language version, and the only one that is announced after the end of the calendar year, determined by a vote of independent linguists, and not tied to commercial interest. However, various other organisations also announce Words of the Year for a variety of purposes.

A Word of the Year is a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest over the last 12 months with shortlisted words hotly debated by llexicographers, editors and even the public involved in choosing the word that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance. So the word of the year is one which sums up the state of the world succiently and defines it.

For the first time, the Oxford Dictionary did not come up with a word for 2020 because according to them, it quickly became apparent that 2020 was not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single “word of the year”, so they decided to report more expansively on the phenomenal breadth of language change and development over the year in their Words of an Unprecedented Year report. This report examines, in detail, the themes that were a focus for language monitoring in 2020, 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.  One of the year’s most remarkable linguistic developments, according to them, 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 term like R number, flatten the curve and community transmission. You can download the report from here.

The Cambridge Dictionary has chosen Quarantine as their Word for 2020. According to their data, it was one of the most highly searched words on the Cambridge Dictionary this year. Quarantine was the only word to rank in the top five for both search spikes and overall views, more than 183,000 by early November, with the largest spike in searches at 28,545 searches seen the week of 18-24 March, when many countries around the world went into lockdown as a result of COVID-19. Noticing this spike in searches, the Cambridge Dictionary editors started to research how people were using the word quarantine, and found a new meaning emerging: a general period of time in which people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely, so that they do not catch or spread a disease. Research showed the word was being used synonymously with lockdown, particularly in the United States, to refer to a situation in which people stay home to avoid catching the disease. This new sense of quarantine has now been added to the Cambridge Dictionary, and marks a shift from the existing meanings, which relate to containing a person or animal suspected of being contagious. The two runner-up words to the word of the year was predictable – lockdown and pandemic. To know more, here is a short video.

Over at the Mariam Webster Dictionary, Pandemic was the word of the year chosen by them. According to Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, this year the word pandemic is not just technical anymore, but has become a word in general usage and is probably the word which will be used to define this period and searches for the word pandemic on March 11 2020 were 115,806% higher than look-ups experienced on the same date in 2019. The word Pandemic, with roots in Latin and Greek, is a combination of the word pan, which means for all, and demos, for people or population. The latter is the same root of democracy and the word pandemic dates to the mid-1600s, used broadly for universal and more specifically to disease in a medical text in the 1660s, after the plagues of the Middle Ages. According to Sokolowski, the the traffic for pandemic was attributed not entirely to searchers who didn’t know what it meant but also to those on the hunt for more detail, or for inspiration or comfort.

The online dictionary, Dictionary.com also had Pandemic as its word of the year for 2020. An overwhelming choice, the word kept running through the profound and manifold ways our lives have been upended — and our language so rapidly transformed—in this unprecedented year. On March 11 when the WHO declared the COVID-19 as a pandemic, when only 4,291 lives were lost around the world, searches for pandemic skyrocketed 13,575% on Dictionary.com compared to 2019. The search volume for pandemic sustained the highest levels on the site over the course of 2020, averaging a 1000% increase, month over month, relative to previous years. Because of its ubiquity as the defining context of 2020, it remained in the top 10% of all lookups for much of the year since.

2020 has changed our vocabulary in ways that cannot be fathomed. Words that were previously scientific in nature have now become commonplace and are used in daily usage. Languages are constantly evolving but I don’t think there has been so many changes in such a short period. 2020 will be a year most of us will never forget, for many reasons and the pandemic that COVID-19 brought will be the foremost reason. This is a year, every one, including children will recount to their children and grandchildren and I pray that the future generations learn from our mistakes and don’t repeat them.

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