Oxford Languages, the organisation behind the ubiquitous ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ (OED), has had to transform its annual Word of the Year concept to incorporate the unprecedented surge in the use of certain words in 2020.
Its ‘Words of an Unprecedented Year’ report released this week examines the themes that were a focus for the language monitoring for the year, 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. Lockdown, WFH (work from home), support bubbles, keyworkers, furlough and circuit-breaker are just some of the pandemic-related lexicography trends for this year.
“As our Word of the Year process started and this data was opened up, it quickly became apparent that 2020 is not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single ‘word of the year’, so we have decided to report more expansively on the phenomenal breadth of language change and development over the year,” said Oxford Languages, part of the Oxford University Press (OUP).
“We cast our net wide to capture how English around the world expressed its own view, sometimes sharing the collective expressions for the phenomena endured globally this year, and at other times using regionally specific words and usages,” it said.
For India, the word that stood out was e-pass – or an official government document authorising a person’s movement during quarantine.
"I've never witnessed a year in language like the one we've just had. The Oxford team was identifying hundreds of significant new words and usages as the year unfolded, dozens of which would have been a slam dunk for Word of the Year at any other time,” said Casper Grathwohl, Oxford Languages President.
"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," he said.
OUP said it used "evidence-based data" to explore this year's language developments.
"We saw new words emerge, and historical words resurface with new significance, as the English language developed rapidly to keep pace with the political upheaval and societal tensions that defined the year," it said.
The report notes that while the word coronavirus dates back to the 1960s and was previously mainly used by scientific and medical specialists, by April this year it had become one of the most frequently used nouns in the English language, exceeding even the usage of the word time. By May, it had been surpassed by Covid-19.
Similarly, the term social distancing dates to the mid-20th century in the general sense of being remote from others, and to the early 21st century in the specific sense of maintaining distance from others in order to reduce the spread of infection, but before 2020 it was relatively rare. In March this year, as governments across the world introduced measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19, social distancing – along with the related verb socially distance and the adjective socially distanced – surged in frequency, the report finds.
Other notably frequent words in our corpus in March and April this year reflect other measures taken to control the virus, including shelter-in-place, stay-at-home (in stay-at-home order), self-isolate, and self-quarantine.
The report also stated that phrases including mask up, anti-mask, anti-masker and mask-shaming were "among the proliferation of words reflecting attitudes towards the issue of mask-wearing". Superspreader, a word dating back to the 1970s, spiked in October when coronavirus cases spread in the White House.
Two words that have seen a growth of more than 300 per cent since March are remote and remotely. And reflecting the proliferation of online meetings, the words mute and unmute have also had a significant rise in usage this year.
Other words registering a surge in usage include workcation (up 500 per cent) – a holiday in which you also work – and staycation (up 380 per cent) – a holiday at home or in your home country.