I’m a little behind getting this going but yes, that’s right, it’s time once again for the feature that you love and I hate (or is it that you hate it and I love it?): the annual Word of the Year (WOTY) summary and wrap up.
As in past years, I’m not really picking a WOTY of my own but am instead combing through numerous WOTY lists, discussing some of the words on them, commenting injudiciously on what I think of them, and maybe—just maybe—endorsing one or more of them as truly useful and relevant new words. Or acknowledging those words which really do represent the year just behind us.
I’ve had a few words on my radar for months now. Most of them turned up on the lists of others, and I’ll note that as we work through them. Let’s get rolling!
If the year had ended early, around mid to late February, our top WOTY contenders would have most likely come from the world of politics. Do you remember when “impeachment” was easily the most important word in the country, if not the entire English language? Me neither: the pandemic has so fried my attention span and my ability to place events properly in time that I’m not even sure it’s really December. On my time-dilated calendar, it shows as March 302nd.
As it turned out, the would-be dictator who was just voted out would still grab a lot of headlines and would have a hand in a lot of the misfortune that befell our shared language this year. But in the end he wasn’t the thing (object or person) who had the most impact. That would be the coronavirus pandemic, with all the vocabulary it entails. (Note that for all things coronavirus I’ll be using AP style, so “coronavirus” as a general term, “COVID-19” for the disease it causes, “SARS-CoV-2” for the actual virus, and so on.)
In addition to paying attention to important news, the players in the WOTY sweepstakes usually dip into popular culture to scout out recent and emerging trends in language. Sometimes they dip too deeply and make the mistake of getting too trendy. I have a hunch that they won’t do that this year—that they’ll be a bit more sober and pay less attention to words like bushlips or milkshake duck or on fleek. And also that the contenders will come from a smaller pool than in many years. By the time I finish this two- (maybe three-) post series, we’ll know if my hunches were right or wrong.
Oxford always goes early (…and deserves a repeated measure of shame for taking the position that the “year” for WOTY qualification runs only through early October). I understand that you have to plan ahead for these things, but…well, no, you don’t really have to plan ahead like that. This is all about them getting out in front of competitors in the insular world of WOTY marketing. There’s no reason they couldn’t hold this until they have the data for the full year, or at least maybe 11½ months of it.
Oxford took the same tack for 2020 that it took in 2019: namely, their WOTY short list is themed. Last year it was all climate, this year it’s (predictable and appropriate) all pandemic related.
Oxford chose not to flag a single word as their WOTY, but instead kind of rolled all these words up into a general idea of WOTY…a WOTY aesthetic or WOTY gestalt, if you like. I won’t waste space reviewing each term, as they’re generally the same words you’ll see elsewhere in this post (click through to review the Oxford list). Heck, you can just click back to my own early collection of pandemic-related terms in April to see most of these.
To me, Oxford’s recognition of in-person as a retronym is a very good nailing down of what was going on there. (Although most of the in-person details aren’t in the posted report but come from a separate interview.) Give them credit for recognizing the contronymic nature of “mask-shaming,” also.
I like the overall approach of the full report Oxford issued this year (you can download it as a PDF). There’s a lot of interesting material in there, even if much of it overlaps with other WOTY lists. It’s important not to take everything in here quite at face value, too. The design at times lets presentation overshadow the literal truth in their data. Still, you can learn a lot here.
Perhaps the most interesting tidbit in Oxford’s WOTY material (at least to me) is the discussion of the sudden change in the top collocates of remote. Language changes slowly—except when it doesn’t. This shows how that can happen.
Oxford tossed in some discussion of important words relating to the environment, society, and politics toward the end of their report. They’re almost an afterthought in comparison to the pandemic, but if you take the time to check out that document you should read the whole thing. COVID-19 will go away in 2021 (probably?), but most of those other issues will be with us for a very long time.
There aren’t a lot of quakers in the report. Allyship is one of the few that I see having a tough climb—not because of the concept (which is important) but because it just doesn’t seem to have the necessary “stickiness” to achieve broad acceptance.
Collins (which also gets no special credit for restraint, as they released their WOTY list even earlier than Oxford) chose lockdown as their 2020 WOTY. It’s as good as any other, and better than many. Personally, I have been wary of using lockdown for most of this year. Not because it’s not a useful word (it is), but because it too often is used when it shouldn’t be. Very early in the pandemic, lockdown (sometimes hyphenated) came to be sloppily substituted for several others words, most commonly shutdown, quarantine, and self-isolation (and those last two were also often sloppily substituted for each other). The shades of meaning are very important, as some of these are (or can be) voluntary and self-initiated while others are (usually) imposed by an outside power. Lockdown was also frequently used by those trying to rouse people to action, often with purely economic or political ends with no regard to public health considerations. I’ve tried (not always successfully) to be careful about using these various terms precisely, but I think most people gave up long ago, if they ever made an effort.
Key Worker is of some interest on the Collins list, because of the way it highlights the differences in American and British English. In the US, we use the term essential worker almost exclusively, so the “key” variant has little or no traction. Collins has a UK focus, so this is understandable.
We should also bear in mind that essential worker is already used increasingly in a sarcastic or ironic sense, with the real intent in those cases being “expendable worker.” I’m not sure if usage will tip one way or the other (sincere or sarcastic), but it’s very much worth noting.
Mukbang gets the award for weirdest word on the Collins list this year. It seems oddly overspecific to qualify as a WOTY candidate, too.
See the full Collins shortlist here.
Merriam-Webster put their list out just after Thanksgiving. They went with pandemic, pure and simple. Their short list—perhaps more of a long list, containing 12 total words—included three other pandemic-related words. The other eight span politics, culture, and sports.
M-W implies that the choice of these words is based on the change in the frequency of lookups on their site. I’m not willing to take that at face value: there’s clearly subjectivity involved here. I have no problem at all with subjectivity in this case—my personal selections are always subjective. There’s just something slightly distasteful about pretending that there’s a deeper rationale for some selections when there isn’t.
M-W’s list overall is just fine, although even after reading their explanations I find the inclusion of schadenfreude and irregardless to be mildly baffling.
The other major American dictionary, American Heritage, doesn’t issue a WOTY (and to my knowledge never has). God bless AHD and all who sail in her. I’m going to keep praising them every year to express my appreciation.
As noted last year, AHD’s online presence is barely there. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I hope they continue as a scholarly endeavor.
I always like to pull in a WOTY selection or two from distant lands (not counting the UK), and Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary and the Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC) usually make this summary list.
Macquarie started with a long list of 75 words. If vocabulary interests you, definitely take a look through it. Many of the terms are on other lists, but with its Australian focus the list is bound to include at least a few terms you’re not familiar with—and probably a few that you’ll find interesting. Nothing here is earth shattering and many are destined for the rubbish heap, but racelift and stalkerware deserve watching, while the thorough Aussie-ness of bonk ban approaches the sublime.
That long list was trimmed to 15 words, with doomscrolling taking their overall WOTY prize.
For the record, I wholeheartedly endorse that choice. Doomscrolling has been on my own short list since around August and while it’s not strictly a pandemic word it is pandemic-related. I’ve personally been suffering from it for much of this year.
Macquarie has a People’s Choice winner as well: Karen. Karen rocketed to prominence this year and has proven to be surprisingly useful. My guess is this one is here to stay, at least for a while. I know some very nice people named Karen who are definitely not karens, though.
The ANDC selected iso- as their WOTY. In the US we have apparently not seen nearly the level of widespread use of iso- as a prefix (during the pandemic) as some other parts of the world. It works, though. See ANDC’s brief announcement and short list here.
While I’m still on Aussie words, last year I noted anecdata as a useful word I’d hoped would see more use. Sadly, it hasn’t. I was only reminded of the value of anecdata when I stumbled across a use of it very late in the year. Perhaps it’s on a slow but relentless journey to common usage; perhaps it’s going nowhere.
In the interest of thoroughness, I usually include dictionary.com. That site selected pandemic (a solid choice) and also released a second word, it’s “People’s Choice” WOTY winner: unprecedented (less solid in my opinion, but more revealing of how their voters look at the world). Dictionary.com continues to improve every year: I no longer feel like I need to wash after visiting, and I’m comfortable including a link to their list.
Sadly, long-time language commentator Geoff Nunberg died last August. His word of the year picks were usually insightful (and he usually waited until very late in the year or into early January to declare them). Nunberg would have been able to take this year off, anyway, knowing that there was such wide consensus on the candidates.
I usually have to make you wait for a few weeks before posting Part 2, but between my lateness and the American Dialect Society releasing their lists early, that post is ready to go. I’ll put it up here in a day or two, so don’t wander off.