Oxford's Defining Words Of 2020: 'Blursday,' 'Systemic Racism' And Yes, 'Pandemic'
Each year, lexicographers at Oxford Languages, the maker of the Oxford English Dictionary, choose a single word or phrase to define the past 12 months. In 2019, it was "climate emergency," and in 2018, it was "toxic."
But this year, they couldn't pick just one.
The pandemic, racial unrest and natural disasters shaped the English language in countless ways in 2020. So Oxford opted to highlight dozens of terms, including "Black Lives Matter," "Blursday," "coronavirus," "lockdown," "social distancing" and "systemic racism."
These terms are outlined in a new report published on Monday as part of the organization's annual Word of the Year campaign. To come up with the featured lingo, researchers analyzed Oxford's language database, containing billions of words, to see how many times a term was used over the past year — then compared that to the previous year.
"The English language, like all of us, has had to adapt rapidly and repeatedly this year," the organization wrote in the report. "Given the phenomenal breadth of language change and development during 2020, Oxford Languages concluded that this is a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word."
Here's a look into some of the featured phrases of 2020.
Virtually every part of everyday life has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Language has been no different.
"There is no doubt the volatile events of 2020 have had an unprecedented impact on the way we live and work," according to the organization in its report. "Specifically COVID-19, which has drastically altered our daily lives and our language."
The frequency of the word "pandemic," unsurprisingly, increased over 57,000% since last year. according to Oxford Language's analysis. And "coronavirus" became one of the most commonly used noun.
The report also looked at the popularity of words over time.
In March and April, the words "lockdown," "shelter-in-place," "stay-at-home," "self-isolate" and "self-quarantine" exploded in use. Then moving to the summer, as the virus came under control in some parts of the world, terms such as "reopening" began to increase in use.
As the months of the pandemic passed, quirky terms such as "covidiots," "doomscrolling" (the endless consumption of bad news) and "Blursday" (referring to the difficulty in determining what day of the week it is) surfaced. "Mask-shaming" also emerged, which refers to either shaming people for wearing a mask or shaming people for not wearing a mask.
Scientific jargon entered public discourse, especially epidemiological terms, the report notes. Terms like "R number," "flattening the curve," "community transmission" and "superspreader" became more common for the public to use when talking about the pandemic.
While the pandemic fueled most of the words in the report, this year's focus on racial justice also changed the way people speak and write.
"This year's global protest movement has also led to huge growth in discussions and debates around issues and policies that directly relate to the Black Lives Matter movement," according to the report, "such as whether to defund U.S. police forces and how to tackle decolonizing or otherwise reforming the institutions and systems widely perceived as perpetuating systemic racial inequality."
Researchers noted the frequency of the term "systemic racism" — racism embedded as normal practice within organizations or society — increased by 1,623% since 2019.
They learned that "Juneteenth," the day when slavery officially ended in Texas on June 19, 1865, was discussed over 10 times more frequently in 2020 than last year.
In the data that Oxford English Dictionary released, one thing is apparent. Our 2020 lingo is vastly different from 2019.
"I've never witnessed a year in language like the one we've just had," said Oxford Languages President Casper Grathwohl in a statement. "It's both unprecedented and a little ironic — in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other."
Reese Oxner is an intern for NPR's Newsdesk.
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