2020 Words of the Year

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As a lover, and close observer, of words, I always look forward to seeing what major dictionaries will choose as their word of the year. They typically do so based on their own data of what word or words have been searched for most often in that year. For 2020, Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com both chose “pandemic,” with Merriam-Webster reporting that on the day the first patient in the U.S. was released from a hospital in Seattle (February 3), “pandemic” had been looked up 1,621 percent more times than in all of 2019 and that by March of this year the word had been searched for 4,000 percent more often. Dictionary.com, saying “pandemic” represented “life upended, language transformed,” reported a 13,575 percentage leap in searches of the word over 2019.

Other dictionaries chose coronavirus-related terms. The British Collins Dictionary used its 4.5 billion word Collins Corpus (which gathers usage from websites, newspapers, and books as well as radio and television) to settle on “lockdown,” defined as “the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction, and access to public spaces,” as its word of the year. Runners-up for Collins included “coronavirus,” “furlough,” “key worker,” “self-isolate,” and “social distancing,” which are all related to COVID, though they also listed “Tik Tokker,” “Black Lives Matter,” and several other very prominent 2020 words or phrases as well.

The venerable Oxford English Dictionary, however, could not settle on one word of the year, even using its 11 billion words gathered from sources across the English-speaking world. The OED issued a report explaining their method and choices, including some newly-coined words such as “Blursday” or “doomscrolling” and ending up with a group of words they found characterized 2020, including “coronavirus,” “pandemic” “social distancing,” “lockdown,” “stay-at-home,” and “in-person,” along with “Black Lives Matter,” “Juneteenth,” and “allyship.” What the editors found startling in 2020 was the way that coronavirus-related words surged above all others as the year went on: “coronavirus,” for example, quickly became one of the most common words in the English language, even more so than a word like “time.”

The OED’s editors say their choice of word or words of the year are intended “to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations” of the year while also having “lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.” And the choices of all these dictionaries seem to do just that, to reflect the national and global obsession with a virus that is killing more than 3,000 Americans a day as this year draws to a close. And it seems important to notice what are NOT words of the year: “impeachment,” for example, or “MAGA” or any number of political terms or slogans. For all the chaos, disruption, and endless, frivolous lawsuits surrounding the 2020 election, national attention seems to have focused on what matters most: life itself.

It’s worth asking our students to consider 2020 in light of these words of the year, and to spend some time choosing their own word or words of the year. I wonder what they will have to say and what words will speak most directly and forcefully to them.

For my part, I’m left thinking hard not so much about what words were used most often in 2020 but about what word (or words) I would choose as my watchword of 2020, a word or words to live by.  At the very top of my list this year is “perseverance,” the ability to endure, to persist, to stay the course, and to hold on in the face of heart-stopping challenges. After that, in this time when we need to protect ourselves, yes, but also and especially all those around us, I’d fall back on the golden rule as not a watchword but a watchphrase to guide me in 2021. If we truly did unto others and said about others and acted toward others as we would have them do, say, and act toward us—well, 2021 would be a year to celebrate and to cherish.

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2563457 by StockSnap, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.