Oxford English Dictionary gives up trying to define 'crazy' 2020 in a single word

There are a lot of words you've probably heard this year a lot more than usual, or for the first time ever - think 'coronavirus', 'lockdown', 'pandemic' and, err, 'QAnon'. 

So many in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary has made the unprecedented (hey look, another word we're all a bit sick of) move to not declare a word of the year for 2020

Usually, they pick something new, or previously obscure, that has come to dominate our conversations - past winners have included 'post-truth' (2016, with the rise of Donald Trump), 'unfriend' (2009, social media) and 'credit crunch' (2008's financial crisis). 

But the COVID-19 pandemic brought it with numerous new words and phrases we all had to learn to have any hope of understanding what was going on. 

"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," said Oxford Dictionaries president Casper Grathwohl. 

"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... I've never witnessed a year in language like the one we've just had."

Instead, the Oxford team came up with dozens of words that sum up the year we've had. 

"What words best describe 2020? A strange year? A crazy year? A lost year?" the report asks. "Oxford Languages' monitor corpus of English shows a huge upsurge in usage of each of those phrases compared to 2019."

Collins Dictionary had no such troubles, naming 'lockdown' its word of the year last week, beating out 'Megxit' and 'BLM'. 

The word 'coronavirus' dates back to the 1960s.
The word 'coronavirus' dates back to the 1960s. Photo credit: Getty

Coronavirus and COVID-19

The first international reports of the new disease came in the new year. It was known initially as the 'coronavirus', a term dating back decades to describe the family of viruses it belongs to.

By March "coronavirus was one of the most frequently used nouns in the English language", but was overtaken in May by COVID-19, the name - short for coronavirus disease 2019 - given to the disease by the World Health Organization in February. 

Other notable words relating to COVID-19 include:

  • 'covidiot': a portmanteau of 'COVID' and 'idiot', " typically referring to a person who disobeys guidelines designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19"
  • 'pandemic': used to describe a disease that has gone worldwide
  • 'plandemic': initially a word used to describe a "proliferation of plans", in 2020 came to mean a belief the pandemic was deliberately planned
  • 'social distancing', 'lockdown', 'shelter-in-place', 'bubbles', 'flatten the curve', 'circuit breaker', 'following the science': strategies for reducing the spread of the virus
  • R number: how many others an infected person will spread the virus to, on average
  • 'community transmission': spread of the virus without a known source
  • 'essential workers': people whose jobs must be done, regardless of lockdowns and other measures
  • 'PPE': short for 'personal protective equipment' worn to avoid spreading or contracting diseases
  • 'wet market': an Asian market where live animals are sold, believed to be linked to the initial outbreak of the virus late last year
  • 'Superspreader': a person or event that causes many others to become infected
  • 'unmute': what you have to do so others can hear you in a meeting held via videoconference.


Other areas of lexicographical innovation

Terms like 'Black Lives Matter', 'defund', 'take a knee', Juneteenth' and 'wokeness' shot up in usage this year, with the growing prominence and acceptance of social justice movements - though the Oxford experts noted 'woke' and 'wokeness' are sometimes "used to refer not to a raising of social consciousness but to social justice virtue-signalling".

'Cancel culture', in reference to people being 'cancelled' for unpopular opinions, is on the rise, " as well as the use of Karen as a generic name for a white woman who behaves in a stereotypically racist or discriminatory manner".

'Karen' has become a "generic name for a white woman who behaves in a stereotypically racist or discriminatory manner".
'Karen' has become a "generic name for a white woman who behaves in a stereotypically racist or discriminatory manner". Photo credit: File

The contentious US election also saw phrases like 'impeachment', 'mail-in' and 'absentee' spike in use.

Our language monitoring activities have also noted significant growth in vocabulary pertaining to conspiracy theories, especially QAnon," the Oxford team said.

" The term QAnon, which refers to the conspiracy theory itself and also more generally to its group of supporters, has increased by 960 percent since last year."

"There is no doubt the volatile events of 2020 have had an unprecedented impact on the way we live and work, specifically COVID-19, which has drastically altered our daily lives and our language," the report said.

"Trends identified in our corpus data revealed extraordinary spikes in usage for words, both old and new, relating to the pandemic. 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, as well as the ever-evolving spheres of technology and climate change, and the ways English across the globe has made its own mark on these developments to the lexicon."

All of Oxford's 2020 words of the year can be read online in the full report.