Words of the Year: Covid and Pandemic But Also Lockdown, Superspreader, and Social Distancing

From a post on bookriot.com about the word of the year:

“It’s a reflection of how language is encompassing the zeitgeist of the times,” said Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society and a language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “We’re looking for those things that reflect our preoccupations, our national discourse, and what’s on our minds.”…

For Merriam-Webster, the winner and its runner-up are chosen based on an analysis of words from their online dictionary.

“For consideration, the words must be looked up in extremely high numbers while also showing a significant year over year increase in traffic,” said Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large for Merriam-Webster. “The Words of the Year shed light on topics and ideas that sparked people’s interest throughout the course of the year.”

At Oxford English Dictionary (OED), candidates are chosen from their language research program, including the “Oxford Corpus,” which gathers around 150 million words from web-based publications each month. Lexicographers use the data to identify new and emerging words and examine how they are used.

Last year really showed the rapid way words can shift, said Fiona McPherson, an editor with OED.

Suddenly, new words and usages were popping up in remarkable numbers. In fact, 2020 was such an unusual year that the OED decided to forgo choosing a single Word of the Year.

Rather, they focused on themes and wrote about various words relating to those themes.

Of course, one major theme was the pandemic. The OED analyzed terms like lockdown, social distancing, and superspreader. But they also looked at political and environmental terms, such as anthropause, the global slowdown of human activities, or acquittal, after President Trump’s first impeachment trial. BIPOC, an acronym for Black, Indigenous, and people of color, was another term identified.

Merriam-Webster and the American Dialect Society both chose single words for 2020: Pandemic for Merriam-Webster, Covid for the American Dialect Society.

“In 2020, it was immediately clear that pandemic was our word,” said Emily Brewster, Senior Editor with Merriam-Webster. “Lookups of the word first spiked in February, and interest in the word was high throughout the remainder of the year.”

At the American Dialect Society, the WOTY process was different for 2020. Normally, the society meets in-person to debate and choose a winner. This year, due to the pandemic, they held a virtual event, inviting members of the public to nominate words before voting on a winner….

“Now we get all sorts of contributions from a diverse array of people,” Zimmer said. “We’re trying our best to accurately reflect the national conversation.”

Going into 2020, Zimmer would have guessed the words they’d be thinking about would be related to the presidential election. For example, red states, blue states was a previous election-year winner.

“Of course, this year was unprecedented, which was another word that got nominated,” Zimmer said.

But COVID-19 dominated the national discourse.

After the World Health Organization dubbed COVID-19, the word quickly became clipped and used in all sorts of phrases like “Covid baking,” “Covid hair,” and “covidiot,” Zimmer said.

“It has become a stand-in for the entire pandemic and the societal impacts that we’ll be experiencing for years to come,” he said.

While it’s too early to know which cultural shifts will dominate 2021, the pandemic is still heavily influencing the language. Zimmer wrote about the term long-hauler for long-term COVID sufferers, and McPherson noted word trends for vaccinations and variants.

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