For the first time, the Oxford English Dictionary has chosen not to name a word of the year, describing 2020 as “a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word.”
Instead, from “unmute” to “mail-in,” and from “coronavirus” to “lockdown,” the eminent reference work has announced its “words of an ‘unprecedented’ year.”
The dictionary on Monday said that there were too many words to sum up this year’s events. Tracking its vast corpus of more than 11 billion words found in Web-based news, blogs and other text sources, its lexicographers revealed what the dictionary described as “seismic shifts in language data and precipitous frequency rises in new coinage” over the past 12 months.
“Coronavirus,” one of its words of the year, is a term that dates back to the 1960s, although it was previously mainly used by scientists. By March this year it was one of the most frequently used nouns in the English language.
“COVID-19,” first recorded on Feb. 11 by the WHO, quickly overtook coronavirus in frequency of use, the dictionary said.
One of the year’s most remarkable linguistic developments has been the extent to which scientific terms have entered general discourse, as we have all become armchair epidemiologists, with most of us now familiar with the term “R number,” the dictionary said.
“Before 2020 this was a term known mainly to epidemiologists; now non-experts routinely talk about ‘getting the R down’ or ‘bringing R below 1.’ Other terms that have become much more common in everyday discourse this year include ‘flatten the curve’ and ‘community transmission,’” it said.
Use of the phrase “following the science” has increased in frequency more than 1,000 percent compared with last year, it said.
Other coronavirus-related language cited by the dictionary includes “pandemic,” which has seen usage increase by more than 57,000 percent this year, as well as “circuit breaker,” “lockdown,” “shelter-in-place,” “bubbles,” “face masks” and “key workers.”
The revolution in working habits has also affected language, with both “remote” and “remotely” seeing more than 300 percent growth in use since March. “On mute” and “unmute” have seen 500 percent rises since March, while the portmanteaus “workation” and “staycation” increased by 500 percent and 380 percent respectively.
Other news events have also been reflected in language. In the early months of this year, there were peaks in usage of “impeachment” and “acquittal,” and “mail-in” has seen an increase of 3,000 percent. Use of “Black Lives Matter” and “BLM” also surged, as did the term “QAnon,” up by 5,716 percent on last year.
The phrase “conspiracy theory” has almost doubled in usage between October last year and last month. However, use of “Brexit” has dropped by 80 percent this year.
“What words best describe 2020? A strange year? A crazy year? A lost year? Oxford Languages’ monitor corpus of English shows a huge upsurge in usage of each of those phrases compared to 2019,” the dictionary said in its report.
“Though what was genuinely unprecedented this year was the hyper-speed at which the English-speaking world amassed a new collective vocabulary relating to the coronavirus, and how quickly it became, in many instances, a core part of the language,” it said.
Previous choices for word of the year from Oxford have included “climate emergency” and “post truth.” Rival dictionary Collins earlier this month chose “lockdown” for its word of the year.
“I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had,” Oxford Dictionaries president Casper Grathwohl said.
“The team at Oxford were 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. 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 added.
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