2020 Was Too Unprecedented for Just One Word of the Year

We talked about the environment, social justice, and mostly the pandemic.

A social distancing sign attached to a tree in a park.
"Social distancing" is one of many COVID-related phrases highlighted by the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary. Cheryl Bronson / Getty Images

If someone asked you for one word to describe 2020, chances are you might come up with something profane. But even if your vocabulary was a little less colorful, you might have difficulty limiting your selection to just one word.

That’s the same problem the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary had when they were debating on their annual Word of the Year. Last year, they settled on "climate emergency," and in 2018, their pick was "toxic."

But they said, “Given the phenomenal breadth of language change and development during 2020, Oxford Languages concluded that this is a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word.”

So instead they analyzed their continually updated database of about 11 billion words to highlight the “words of an unprecedented year.”

Of course, the majority of them revolve around the pandemic. In fact, the use of the word “pandemic” itself increased by more than 57,000% over last year.

The word “coronavirus” dates back to the 1960s, but not many people outside of the medical and scientific fields dropped it in casual conversation until early this year. By March, it was one of the most frequently used nouns in the English language.

“COVID-19” wasn’t even a word until Feb. 11 when the World Health Organization named the mysterious new disease. By May, people were using it more often than coronavirus, Oxford notes.

In March and April, new phrases and words became common parts of our conversations. We had “social distancing” and “lockdown,” “stay at home,” “self-isolating” and “self-quarantine.” Throughout the year, so many pandemic-related terms have continued to surface from PPE (personal protective equipment) to face coverings. And we all learned what it meant to try to “flatten the curve” and many of us were concerned about “superspreader” events.

But because this has been a year of unending news, we’ve talked about so much more than the virus.

How We Talked About the Environment

In January, one of the top keywords was “bushfire” because of the Australian fires that devastated the country at the end of 2019 and through the early part of this year. Other climate-related events include the catastrophic wildfires in California, a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season, and historic Arctic sea ice loss.

“And yet, with a few exceptions, climate change has not received nearly the amount of media attention as it has in previous years, as Covid-19 and other issues have dominated the news,” according to Oxford.

“Last year, the Oxford Languages Word of the Year was ‘climate emergency,’ with a shortlist composed entirely of words relating to climate and environmental issues. In March this year, the frequency of climate, global warming, and related terms plummeted in our corpus.”

By March, the frequency of the word “climate” plunged by nearly 50% from where it was at the start of the year.

There is good news for the environment. “Climate” and related terms are becoming more popular again, as is “net zero.” The change in attention is partly due to the pledge by China’s President Xi Jinping in September that the country will be carbon neutral by 2060.

Social Movements and Politics

The Oxford report highlighted phrases related to social movements and social justice. This year we discussed “Black Lives Matter” and “BLM.” We used “BIPOC” as an abbreviation of Black, indigenous, and other people of color. There was talk of “wokeness” and “systemic racism” while the use of “cancel culture” also soared.

And of course, there were politics. We talked a lot about “impeachment” in January, “acquittal” in February, and “mail-in” voting in August.

Words at Home

Because so many people started work at home and staying at home more this year, the language reflected that. They’re not new at all, but “remote” and “remotely” saw a huge surge in use since March. Along with it, the word “unmute” saw a 500% rise. (What’s the use of being on Zoom if no one can hear you?)

But not only were we talking about Zoom, we now know what “Zoombombing” is when people infiltrate Zoom calls for disruptive purposes.

“The English language, like all of us, has had to adapt rapidly and repeatedly this year,” the Oxford lexicographers write, when sharing their vast list.

"I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had," said Oxford Languages President Casper Grathwohl in a statement. "It’s both unprecedented and a little ironic—in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other."

And we still have more than a month to go.

View Article Sources
  1. Languages, Oxford. "2020 Words Of An Unpredicted Year." Oxford Languages, 2020, pp. 1-38.

  2. Normile, Dennis. "Can China, The World’S Biggest Coal Consumer, Become Carbon Neutral By 2060?". Science | AAAS, 2020.