The Oxford English Dictionary: Reviewing Words of an Unprecedented Year

Dec 4, 2020

As we enter the final weeks of 2020, year-end events that serve as punctuation marks in the passage of time have begun to appear in the media. We get to see the year once again through the ‘rear-view mirror’ of hindsight to see if there is anything of lasting value or importance to carry over into the new year. One of my personal favorites is the ‘Word of the Year’ released by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) at this time each year. Language is a highly accurate and adaptable reflection of the dynamic ebb and flow of human activity at any given moment in time. We talk about what is going on around us and adapt our language to suit the needs of the time. Experience translates into expression; actions and words are inextricably linked. There is much to be learned from the ever-changing linguistic landscapes around us.

In 2020, it was always going to be a tough task for the venerable OED to encapsulate the essence of tumultuous times in a single word. And so it proved to be. Distilling the zeitgeist of 2020 into a single word presented a challenge beyond even the prodigious skills of the OED team, with the title this year going to the Words of an Unprecedented Year.

Curiously, vigorously, humorously, our vocabulary in languages across the world evolved to describe phenomena that previously had been the exclusive province of fiction.

Some of these distinctive English terms identified by OED are artefacts from earlier periods of human history, now revived in the 21st century: quarantine, for example, or furlough. Some only emerged in the past twelve months: ‘Covid-19’ (CO – corona VI – virus – disease novel in 2019), or its now more popular short-form ‘Covid’, was first seen in February. This has now evolved into various informal variants: ‘rona’ in Australia, for example, or the unusual and amusing pop-culture adaptation of Cockney rhyming slang – ‘miley’ (for Miley Cyrus = coronavirus).

Some existing words were adapted for new contexts: ‘lockdown’, previously used to describe an emergency safety measure adopted in schools when faced with an armed intruder, now applied to entire cities, even countries; ‘shelter-in-place’, a term associated with civil defense during the Cold War, was revived to limit mobility.

Some terms carry an implied censure or shame: ‘superspreaders’ are individuals with an unusually virulent capacity to pass on the virus. Some new words are both humorous and pointedly critical at the same time: ‘covidiots’ are individuals who breach social distancing regulations; ‘Coronials’ describes the generation of children conceived during the social isolation of the Covid era; in 2033 they will be called ‘quaranteens’.

Under ‘WFH’ (work from home) directives, we have all had to master ‘quarantech’, such as Google Meet and Zoom, to sustain normal human interaction. We have all learned to meet, socialize, shop, study, graduate, cook, exercise, even date online. With schools closed around the world, housebound teenagers have become ‘zoomers’; online pranksters ‘zoom-bombing’.

Unsurprisingly, the year in words reflected political phenomena. The promise of travel ‘bubbles’ intrigued and frustrated. Anything to do with face masks became contentious, leading to some odd contranyms. ‘Mask-shaming’ acquired two opposite meanings: to be criticized for both wearing or failing to wear a mask, depending on the location and context. We could ‘mask-up’ or be ‘anti-mask’ depending on our politics.

One term that has emerged recently – ‘covexit’ – describes the search for a way out of the social isolation and economic dormancy that has characterized much of 2020. With global public discourse now focusing on the relative merits of various vaccines vying for our attention and acceptance, we look with renewed hope for our way out of an unprecedent year, with its unprecedented words. Perhaps next year’s Word of the Year will be ‘covend’?


Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School