Nhow do we get new words and how do old words get a fresh twist? In ordinary times it is a constant process, the linguistic business as usual. A new invention will be purchased, such as “wifi” (1999) or “iPod” (2001). People will pick up trends or changes in behavior and give them labels such as “crowdfunding” (2008) or “catfish” (2012). Last year, the Guardian identified “femtech” and “canceled” among the words that embodied 2019. This year, you may have noticed, was a little different – the verbal equivalent of a raid at dawn: a few insistent elements of vocabulary smashed the front door and aimed their guns at us as we descended under the blanket. And while it’s true that the changes caused by the virus dominate this year’s list, there have been other developments. While the big dictionaries reveal their votes (words of the year), we ask which of them – good or bad – will best capture the spirit of 2020.
Royal hairpin. Yes, there is a coronavirus, Covid-19, Sars-CoV-2, ‘rona, all different kinds of this horrible pathogen, with special emphasis, technical significance and so on. But the word that best describes the situation we are in, its scale, or anything-really thinking about it is “pandemic”.
It is built on two words from ancient Greek – frying panwhich means “everything”, and demo, “People” – and used in the sense of “affecting all” since the 17th century. Interestingly, the Greek origin means that it ominously echoes two other English words: “pandemonium” (a word coined by Milton, “the abode of all demons” in his “Past Lost”) and “panic” (which has its own interesting etymology, but that’s another story). The first great pandemic of the 21st century has indeed created panic and pandemics – and panaceas (“cure everyone”) seem invisible.
Yes, I know these are two words, but I will be involved in the clumsy “climate emergency” of the Oxford Dictionaries in 2019 and highlight this powerful combination for 2020. Among other things, it shows how scientific concepts can acquire political connotations and it seems every new problem gets into the sausage machine on social media, emerging with the familiar contours of a “cultural war”. At the beginning of the crisis, it was not clear that blocking was somehow more left-wing, or avoiding a mask was a gesture of a “magician”, for example.
The immunity of the herd is an example: in 2020, he introduced a concept that is consistent in epidemiology – a state of protection against the disease, which occurs either by vaccination or by most people who have suffered it. He gained an infamous reputation in part thanks to Boris Johnson’s comments during a March interview: “One theory is that maybe you could take it on your chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease to seem to move through the population.” Suspicions that the government may voluntarily take on the task have not dispelled rumors of Dominic Cummings’ position, which in one report summarized as “herd immunity, protecting the economy, and if it means some retirees are dying, very bad.”
Like the pandemic, the blockade – which Collins declared his winner – was already familiar enough. But the specific importance it has acquired – legal restrictions, including locking the house up to stop the virus from spreading – means it will forever be linked to disease control. Initially, it was used to describe the detention of prisoners in cells as a security measure after obstacles – hence the element of “lock”. By analogy, they also talked about terrorist attacks or school shootings. Such blocking will last for several hours until the area in question becomes safe. Now it seems more like a reminder of a long sad stay, in which we are denied many pleasures – parties, concerts, drinks with friends.
Zoom is the most common eponym of 2020: a word that comes from its own noun, in this case – the name of the company for video conferencing. So it stands in the great tradition of Hoover, Portaloo, Kleenex and Google products, so successful that they have entered the common language and occupy the trademark protection officials of their companies (if we hear any of them, try a language release) . However, they can waste their time. Once a word escapes into a popular culture like this, it acquires its own life. “Scaling” has become a verb – “are we scaling tonight?” – and applies to virtually any platform that supports live video, regardless of who made the software: “Can I do zooming through Google Meet?” At this point, perhaps we should get rid of the thought of Skype, which, at least in terms of branding, had a very bad pandemic.
Let’s leave the virus for a moment and go back to simpler times when royal gossip could dominate the news cycle for days. In early January, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Megan, announced they would step down as “senior” members of the royal family. Although Harry had every reason to avoid constant control by the British press, the event was dubbed “Megxit”, playing perhaps in a sexist group of a new woman who sweeps up and imposes a man against her friends. But it may have come down to the fact that her name contains a velar consonant, allowing it to blend seamlessly with the suffix “-xit,” which, once the Brexit saga was over, was in dire need of a new job.
Donald Trump’s relentless escalation of tensions has helped ensure that 2020 becomes a year of political and social turmoil in the United States. May 31 he wrote on Twitter: “The United States will designate ANTIFA as a terrorist organization.” The protests came after the assassination by police of George Floyd, an African-American from Minneapolis, and Trump’s response was blamed on the radical left (which is to say his threat against a free coalition rather than an organization was never carried out).
However, this was not Antifa’s first rodeo. In 2017, after clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, he was shortlisted for Oxford, and the dictionary noted that he was borrowed from German Anti-fascist action, after a network of anti-fascist groups created before World War II. If you’re still wondering about pronunciation, you can say it however you like: the emphasis on the first syllable (ANtifa) and on the second (AnTIfa) seems common. Trump is worth it, says Antifa.
In fact, the shockwaves of Floyd’s death spread far beyond several devoted groups of activists. The Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2013, has once again become a symbol of the struggle for racial justice and has been used so often that its initials no longer require further explanation. The slogan has been adopted not only in the US but worldwide, having passed in Canada, Australia and across Europe. In Britain, this pushed a new reckoning with our past and led to the most dramatic images of protest for an entire generation: the overthrow of a statue of slave owner Edward Colston and its joyous ejection into the harbor.
The summer of racing in the United States also popularized “Karen,” a caricature of a patronizing middle-class white woman who either knows little about her racial privileges or is willing to use her to punish or humiliate colored people. For example, “Karen Central Park” was an inscription to a woman who called police on a black bird watcher Christian Cooper who asked her to put a dog. African-American commentator Karen Griggsby Bates (she should know, right?) Puts “Karen” in a series of stamping terms that includes “Becky” and “Miss Ann”. Others note that a woman-woman used the word to abuse and humiliate women. Both are true, but that is the word: they can mean different things in different lips.
From the depths of General Z’s restless psyche comes another gender insult (yes, I understand how annoying that so many of our people are related to illness and have no character, but I’m just a messenger). “Simp” is a guy who tries to get in touch with a woman, spoiling himself over her. He is desperate and steadfast. You can think of “simp” as this year’s “incel”. And if you haven’t encountered this yet, maybe it’s because you’re not on TikTok, where the meme “simp nation” has been circulating since December 2019. There are various explanations for the origin of this word, some claim that it is a rather unpleasant abbreviation, but it seems more likely that it is an abbreviation of “simpleton”.
Sorry again for the lack of light. Maybe that’s all I was doing. But who can blame me if I force myself to refresh social media to make sure the news may not be as bad as everyone else, just to find more bad news and then more. For many of us, the first days of pandemic flexion were an uncontrollable tick. We may have been looking for evidence of progress in treatment, but we found a report of a possible reinfection or an outbreak of bubonic plague. As far as it’s worth, I guess we might be going to turn the corner when it comes to bad news. Although we are undoubtedly facing a grueling winter, it seems that these virologists are progressing. Next year I am doing a “vaccine” and a “postpandemic”. Crossed fingers.
David Shariatmadari is the author of “Don’t Believe the Word: From Myths to Misunderstandings – How Language Really Works” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £ 9.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping cost can apply