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2 December 2020updated 30 Jul 2021 10:35am

No single word can sum up 2020 – a truth I have acknowledged while sub-editing this magazine

For the first time, the Oxford English Dictionary chose not to pick a Word of the Year – but Covid-19 has certainly left its mark on our language. 

By Pippa Bailey

This year has felt like one of many words, and yet none is quite sufficient. We talk in circles in an attempt to rationalise the unprecedented, use hundreds of adjectives in the search for the right one, but definition eludes us.

This is the conclusion the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) reached when faced with deciding on its Word of the Year. There is no word in the English language, the OED deduced, that wholly encapsulates the experience of 2020 – and so, for the first time, it has decided not to choose one. Instead its lexicographers have analysed a monitor corpus of 11 billion words, and produced a report documenting how coronavirus has drastically changed not only the ways we live, work and interact, but the way we speak. “What was genuinely unprecedented this year,” the report says, “was the hyper-speed at which the English-speaking world amassed a new and collective vocabulary.”

It’s a process I have seen, on a smaller scale, at the New Statesman. Part of my job as a sub-editor is applying a single style among multiple, technically correct variations for the sake of consistency; for example, we prefer “US” to “USA”. This year, we have made a series of such judgements about newly emerging words and phrases. We use “coronavirus”, preceded by neither a definite article nor “novel”, and it is “Covid-19”, not “COVID-19”. We chose to write the “front line” as two words, rather than one; to use “phase three trials” rather than “Phase 3 trials”. Our style guide has expanded disproportionately to accommodate the virus.

Covid-19 is not the only infectious disease to have left its mark on the English language: the word “pandemic” first appeared in 1666, the year the Great Plague ended, and “self-quarantine” was recorded in relation to the events in Eyam, Derbyshire, that year.

[see also: How lockdown sparked an online language-learning boom]

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In news that will surprise no one, the use of “pandemic” increased by 57,000 per cent this year compared to 2019. By April, “coronavirus” appeared with a frequency exceeding that of “time”, one of the most regularly used nouns in English. As a word becomes embedded in common language, abbreviations and wordplay begin to appear, and so we get “Covid”, “corona”, “post-Covid” and “covidiot”. The OED made two updates to the dictionary this year, further to its usual quarterly additions, to take in phrases such as “social distancing” and “contact tracing” – and to update the definition for “elbow bump”, which, curiously, has been in the dictionary since 1981, just waiting for its moment.

There is something nostalgic in reading about the popular words of the summer from the dark depths of lockdown 2.0: how I long for the days of “reopening” and “easing”. There has also been an increase in the use of the prefix “in-person”, such as “in-person voting” and “in-person worship” to describe actions that would once have simply been known as “voting” and “worship”. The move to remote working has been recorded, too. In the simpler, more office-y days of 2019, the words most commonly paired with “remote” included “village”, “island” and “control”; this year, they were “learning” and “working”. Video conferencing has gifted us the coinage of “Zoom-ready”, “Zoom-friendly” and – a pleasingly light-hearted neologism – “waist-up dressing”. The use of “unmute” has risen by 500 per cent, though here the dictionary’s record-keeping fails us: surely the moments we will all remember are the ones when a colleague should have remained muted.

It is ironic that, in a year so uniquely dominated by a singular event, the OED could not alight upon a Word of the Year: surely no one would have quibbled with “coronavirus” or “pandemic”. Yet the record it has produced in its attempt to do so is a far truer representation of 2020 than any individual word could be. We are incapable of fully expressing the profoundly world- and life-altering events of this year; and yet we are united by and understood in that inability. I imagine that when we recall the pandemic in years to come, no length of time nor depth of exposition will render us anything other than lost for words. 

[see also: A hard winter is coming – but in the garden, autumn’s pleasures are still there for the taking]

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed