Lockdown, superspreader, unprecedented: 2020 has changed the English language, for good

Last year it was “climate emergency.” The previous year, it was “toxic.” But for 2020, the U.K.’s Oxford University Press (OUP) could not come up with one definitive “word of the year”.

Instead, the venerable publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary has chosen to reflect 2020’s decade-crammed-into-one-year nature by highlighting its rapid and wide-ranging effect on the English language.

The details can be found in a report published Monday by the OUP, but if it’s words you crave, here are some that are unsurprisingly given prominence in that report: coronavirus, lockdown, social distancing, superspreader, mail-in, moonshot, Black Lives Matter, cancel culture, bushfires, impeachment and acquittal.

And, of course, doomscrolling.

“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 in our Words of an Unprecedented Year report,” the publisher said in a statement.

“Unprecedented” was, incidentally, one of the words being used a lot more than usual this year, the report notes.

If you find this year’s Oxford decision unsatisfying, don’t worry, there are other organizations that also come up with a word of the year. Merriam-Webster’s only comes out in December, as does the American Dialect Society’s, but at least one other has already been decided.

A couple weeks ago, HarperCollins’s Collins English Dictionary opted for “lockdown” as its word of the year, because it refers to “a unifying experience for billions of people across the world, who have had, collectively, to play their part in combating the spread of COVID-19.”

Meanwhile, the Society of the German Language is yet to announce its Wort des Jahres for 2020, but last month the Pons publishing house announced Germany’s Youth Word of the Year, which is simultaneously English (Germans regularly co-opt English words as their own) and teutonically bleak: “lost.”

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