The 20 Words and Phrases That Defined 2020

From a New York Times story by Tim Herrera headlined “The 20 Phrases That Defined 2020”:

This year has given us scores of new words, phrases, expressions and metaphors. Some are new to the popular vernacular, like quarantine pod, while others are just newly relevant after long histories as specialized terms, like contact tracing. Some are technical, like super-spreader event and aerosol droplets; some are packed with cultural meaning, like systemic racism and panic shopping; and others still, like maskne and walktails, are just goofy little turns of phrase that let us find a drop of joy in this disastrous year. But all of them serve a purpose in these most uncertain times.

“What’s fascinating about this year is that so many of these words have gone from being words that we had maybe heard of and we might have used very occasionally, but they’ve now gone to basically inform almost every single conversation that we have,” said Fiona McPherson, a new words editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. In her more than 20 years with the O.E.D., she said, “I can’t think of anything that has been similar.”

The sheer breadth of words that were popularized this year — everything from medical jargon to social media-friendly shorthand — was particularly unusual, Ms. McPherson said. And for the first time since 2004, when Oxford Languages, the publisher of the O.E.D., started choosing a Word of the Year, it declined to pick just one.

We couldn’t pick one, either. But here are the 20 words and phrases we think capture what it felt like to be alive in this unprecedentedyear of our quar, 2020.

Black Lives Matter

Blursday — This quickly became a goto Twitter meme as the combination of a relentless news cycle mixed with the droll, repetitive reality of life in lockdown, giving existence in 2020 a Groundhog Day-esque quality.

Circuit breaker — Related word: K-shaped recovery

Contact tracing

Doomscrolling — The catchall, platform-agnostic term for consuming bad news or information you know is detrimental to your mental health and wellness yet being unable to stop.

Essential workers

Flatten the curve — Related words: Disinfect; “Wear a mask”; 6 feet; ventilator

Frontline workers


Mail-in ballot

Pod — Related words: bubble, quaranteam

P.P.E. — Severe shortages of personal protective equipment for health care workers dominated headlines in the first few months of the pandemic.

Remote learning

Social distancing



Virtual happy hour

Voter fraud


Zoom — Up until around March of this year, Zoom was enterprise software meant to help businesses communicate. Then the home became the office for millions of Americans, and our social lives moved entirely online. Almost overnight Zoom emerged as the go-to platform for private citizens, religious services and universities.
Tim Herrera edits and writes for Smarter Living, and is a co-editor of the Smarter Living book. Before coming to The Times, he wrote about digital culture for The Washington Post.



  1. Avery Comarow says

    Funny that the Times overlooked a missing hyphen, which completely changed the meaning in a story about language.

    “…said Fiona McPherson, a new words editor at the Oxford English Dictionary.”

    Turns out she wasn’t new. She’d been there for more than 20 years. Not that there would have been any reason to identify her as new anyway.

    I’d never run across some of the words and phrases, FWIW. YMMV and all that.

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