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Oxford’s 2020 Word of the Year? It’s Too Hard to Isolate

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Oxford Languages’s annual Word of the Year is usually a tribute to the protean creativity of English and the reality of constant linguistic change, throwing a spotlight on zeitgeisty neologisms like “selfie,” “vape” and “unfriend.”

Sure, it isn’t all lexicographic fun and frolic. 2017 saw the triumph of “toxic.” Last year, the winner was “climate emergency.”

But then came 2020, and you-know-what.

This year, Oxford Languages, the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary, has forgone the selection of a single word in favor of highlighting the coronavirus pandemic’s swift and sudden linguistic impact on English.

“What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change,” Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of product, said in an interview. “This event was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year.”

The Word of the Year is based on usage evidence drawn from Oxford’s continually updated corpus of more than 11 billion words, gathered from news sources across the English-speaking world. The selection is meant “to reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the preceding year, while also having “lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.”

The 2020 report does highlight some zippy new coinages, like “Blursday” (which captures the way the week blends together), “covidiots” (you know who you are) and “doomscrolling” (who, me?). But mostly, it underlines how the pandemic has utterly dominated public conversation, and given us a new collective vocabulary almost overnight.

Take, for starters, “pandemic”: Use of the term increased more than 57,000 percent since last year. “Coronavirus” — a word coined in 1968, but until this year little used outside medical contexts — also surged, breaking away from run-of-the-mill topical words.

Back in January, it was neck-and-neck with “impeachment,” then surging because of the proceedings against President Trump. But by April, “coronavirus” had become one of the most common nouns in English, overtaking even stalwarts like “time.”

And that, Ms. Martin said, is highly unusual, perhaps even unprecedented (another word, by the way, whose usage soared, according to the report). Usually, when a topical word surges, she said, “it becomes more common relative to other topical words, but not relative to words we all say in English all the time.”

The Oxford report also highlights words and phrases relating to social justice, including “Black Lives Matter,” “Juneteenth,” “decolonize,” and “allyship,” some of which surged dramatically starting in late May, amid the protests following the killing of George Floyd in police custody. But those increases, while notable, were nowhere near those of pandemic-related terms.

And the pandemic may have actually reduced the frequency of other topical words. Last year, Oxford released an all-climate related short list, topped by “climate emergency.” But in March, as the pandemic took hold, the frequency of the word “climate” itself abruptly plunged by almost 50 percent.

(Usage has since rebounded a bit, and the report also flagged the emergence of some new climate-related terms, like “anthropause,” proposed in an article in the journal Nature in June to describe the sudden drastic reduction in human mobility, and its impact on the natural world.)

The pandemic turned once-obscure public-health terminology like “social distancing” or “flatten the curve” into household terms, and made words and phrases like “lockdown” and “stay-at-home” common. More subtly, it also altered usage patterns for ho-hum words like “remote” and “remotely.”

Previously, the most common collocates (as lexicographers call words that appear most frequently together) of “remote” were “village,” “island” and “control.” This year, Ms. Martin said, they were “learning,” “working” and “work force.”

The Oxford report also highlights increased use of “in-person,” often in retronyms, as lexicographers refer to a new term for an existing thing that distinguishes the original from a new variant. (For example: “land line” or “cloth diaper.”) In 2020, it became increasingly necessary to specify “in-person” voting, learning, worship and so on.

Most years, a lot of the fun of Oxford’s short list comes from portmanteaus, or blend words, like “mansplain” or “broflake.” But this year, even the neologisms were a bit downbeat. For every “covidiot” and “Blursday,” there was a “twindemic” (the concurrence of two epidemics) and an “infodemic” (an anxiety-arousing explosion of pandemic-related information).

So … is it fair to say that in 2020, even the words were, well, kind of terrible?

Ms. Martin declined to be so negative. But she confessed to some nostalgia for the days of playful, dare-you-to-put-it-in-the-dictionary coinages like “lumbersexual,” from Oxford’s 2015 shortlist.

She said she hoped 2021 would bring more “fun, positive words that didn’t seem to hold the weight of the world on their shoulders.”

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