Ben Zimmer: “The Words That Defined 2020”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ben Zimmer headlined “Covid: The New Coinage That Defined 2020”:

Thirty years ago this month, the American Dialect Society began an annual tradition of selecting a Word of the Year. What began as a whimsical exercise on the model of Time’s Person of the Year has grown in stature as dictionary publishers and other groups have followed suit.

For a decade now, I have been overseeing the dialect society’s Word of the Year selection as chair of the its New Words Committee. For this year, more than 300 attendees took part in a virtual event featuring a lively debate over nominations in a variety of categories.

There was no shortage of innovative terms, including some previously featured in this column, like “doomscrolling” (obsessing over bad news online, chosen as Digital Word of the Year) and “the Before Times” (a term for the pre-pandemic era, deemed Most Useful). Other prime 2020 words included “oysgezoomt,” a Yiddishism meaning “fatigued by overexposure to Zoom,” and “Blursday,” to describe the experience of days seeming to blend into each other during lockdown.

But the overall winner of Word of the Year, after much deliberation, was a more obvious word with which we’ve become all too familiar: “Covid.” It’s hard even to think back to the beginning of 2020—aka the Before Times—when those five letters carried no meaning. . . .

That changed on Feb. 11, when the World Health Organization announced that the disease caused by the novel coronavirus would henceforth be known as “Covid-19.”. . .

The name was formed as an acronym of “coronavirus disease 2019,” but within hours of the news, people were shortening it even further to simple “Covid.” Neil Stone, a consultant in infectious diseases at London’s University College Hospital, tweeted that day, “Names matter. The novel #Coronavirus has now been named #Covid,” already converting the shorthand name into a hashtag. . . .

“Covid” has combined easily with other terms to make new compounds. Recent Wall Street Journal headlines have referenced “Covid vaccines,” “Covid restrictions” and “Covid relief.” (Capitalization varies: The Journal, New York Times and CNN capitalize just the first letter of the acronym, while others use an all-capitals style; the Washington Post makes “covid” and “covid-19” all lowercase.)

Tony Thorne, a language researcher at King’s College London, has been compiling his own “Covidictionary” during the pandemic. Entries include “Covid waltz” (“maneuvering to avoid close contact with passers-by”), “Covidpreneurs” (“individuals or businesses succeeding in thriving and innovating in a pandemic environment”) and of course “covidiot” (“a person behaving irresponsibly in conditions of containment”).

One of the more creative Covidisms I saw among Word of the Year nominations was “Brunch Covidians,” for those flouting Covid restrictions so they can go to brunch (playing off the name of the Branch Davidian sect). In a year overshadowed by grim pandemic news, people never stopped coming up with new Covid idioms—Covidioms, if you will.


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