As It Happens·Q&A

What single word sums up 2020? Oxford Languages couldn't decide, either

The Oxford "word of the year" is always a telling sign of how the world has shifted. That's why it makes sense the OED has selected not one, but several words to reflect the magnitude of changes that accompanied 2020. They include doomscrolling, superspreader and BLM, among others.

Oxford expands its word of the year to reflect 'astonishing linguistic innovation'

Every year, the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary select a 'word of the year' to reflect back how language has changed. But this year, there are several. (Premio Stock/Shutterstock)

Transcript

Oxford Language's "word of the year" is always a telling sign of how the world has shifted.

That's why it makes sense the dictionary publisher has selected not one, but several, words to reflect the magnitude of changes that accompanied 2020, a year its report described as "unprecedented." They include doomscrolling, superspreader and BLM (for Black lives matter), among others.

Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries, explained the selections in an interview with Carol Off on As It Happens. Here is part of their conversation.

Casper, I would have thought that "pandemic" would be the Oxford English Dictionary word that would sum up 2020. Why isn't that sufficient?

Well, we could have chosen a word like pandemic or coronavirus, but actually the point of the word of the year is to pick a word that captures the mood or the ethos of the last 12 months.

And as we've been tracking language over the course of this past year, what was most remarkable wasn't a single word that we found interesting, but just the sheer amount of linguistic change and evolution that happened so rapidly. And we wanted to call attention to that.

And so what is it [that's] different about 2020? I can tell you a few reasons, but as far as trying to capture the mood and preoccupations of the year, as you usually do with your words, how different is this year?

Well, this year is different only in that everything about our lives changed. And so it makes sense that the language we use reflects that. In every subject area we would review, we would find a huge amount of linguistic innovation trying to capture all of this change that's upended our lives.

And so we saw from politics to economics to medicine, whole new vocabularies were emerging, or words that we had used in a certain way in 2019 all of a sudden took on a completely different significance in the mainstream in 2020.

Can you give us an example or a few examples?

Sure. I mean, "remote" is a good example. So if you look at 2019, the words that were most closely associated with remote, when you look at the statistics, are village, island and control. You look at 2020 and, of course, remote is learning, working and workforce.

And that right there, that highlights how a common word like remote has done a complete 180 in terms of the role it's playing in describing what's happening in the world right now.

There are a huge number of words that have had that kind of a transformation this year. And that's not even to mention the fact that there are so many new words, new coinages, that have come about trying to describe the situation we're in.

The word 'superspreader' spiked in usage in October after a series of events held at the U.S. White House were linked to an outbreak of positive COVID-19 cases in Washington. (Oxford English Dictionary)

And can you give us some examples of those?

Sure. I was just this morning, I was participating in a little bit of "doomscrolling." Doomscrolling is where you are just going through … the coronavirus headlines and what's happening in the world. And we've all gone, you know, sort of into that rabbit hole occasionally and found ourselves a little bit exhausted and hopeless at the end of it. So doomscrolling is a word that's come about to describe that.

Also, a fun word that I've been thinking about this morning was "coronials." [It's] sort of like the term millennial, but in this instance describes babies that are born, I guess, kind of right about now, which tells you a little something about, you know, what we're all up to in lockdown.

What you did this year that's interesting is that you were tracking the use of the words in real time. I guess it must have been some words that suddenly erupted, like I'm thinking of the word "superspreader" or anything sort, an historical moment when you saw that suddenly spike.

Yeah, superspreader is an interesting example. So we saw a real spike in usage of superspreader in October. And you can see exactly how that correlates to the social events that happened at the White House, where after which quite a few public officials came down with coronavirus — and that term superspreader came out of that event. And we see a spike in usage in October.

There are a variety of places, this year, where you saw a word really just all of a sudden have unprecedented usage. And that right there is a signal of what makes a good word of the year. We just saw these spikes happening all over the place in a way that was really unprecedented. 

Oxford's 2019 Word of the Year was 'climate emergency.' As the pandemic dominated 2020, usage of the word climate 'plummeted' in the spring and early summer. (Oxford English Dictionary)

It's not that the coronavirus certainly dominated this past year, but there were other really extraordinarily important things like Black Lives Matter, particularly since the killing of George Floyd.

And also, you did not give up on climate emergency as being that was due to 2019 word. What were some of the climate-related phrases or words you came up with this year?

"Climate," as a word, had a precipitous drop in use this year, partly because the coronavirus, the language of coronavirus, crowded out so much else. So we saw that drop. But there were some really interesting examples of where climate was still a preoccupation on people's minds.

One is the term "anthropause," which describes the fact that during this period of lockdown, there's so many recorded places where we're polluting less because we're not traveling, where there's no air travel, there's less human activity.... And so anthropause captures this moment right now.

It's also a very interesting thing for scientists to study. Another word that's climate related is "net zero," which … has been a term that's been around for a while. But just this past month, we saw the usage spike when China made a pledge to by 2060 be carbon neutral. And so a lot of conversation started happening around that, [then] we saw its usage increased dramatically.


Written by Lito Howse and Mary Vallis. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A condensed and edited for clarity.

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story credited the Oxford English Dictionary for compiling the Word of the Year report. In fact, Oxford Languages, an overarching group that includes dictionaries like the OED, compiles the annual list.
    Nov 27, 2020 4:51 PM ET

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