The word of the year is defined as ‘watching Normal People in your pyjamas’. What is it?

The 2020 selection is taken up with terms relating to a certain familiar menace

“Scarcely one in a hundred people can have known what an R-number was before Covid arrived. Now every second amateur physician is brandishing the term with the same confidence they bring to the discussion of weather, hurling, politics or whatever else they pretend to know about.” File photograph: Getty

“Scarcely one in a hundred people can have known what an R-number was before Covid arrived. Now every second amateur physician is brandishing the term with the same confidence they bring to the discussion of weather, hurling, politics or whatever else they pretend to know about.” File photograph: Getty

 

Reporting on “word of the year” is a little like reporting on the heavyweight championship of the world. Too many competing organisations award too many belts. Last year, Collins Dictionaries went for “climate strike”, Merriam-Webster chose the singular usage of “they”, Oxford Dictionaries liked “climate emergency” and Dictionary.com took the intellectual high road with “existential”.

 If the Covid crisis has done anything it has got us all talking the same language. It hardly needs to be said that this year’s selection is almost exclusively taken up with words relating to that continuing menace.

For the first time ever, Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster – the two most-quoted US sources – have gone for the same word. “Pandemic”? Could they not have tried a little harder? Well, it’s very obviousness is what secures its double glory.

The most interesting contribution to this year’s word of the year debate came, however, from the good people at Oxford Dictionaries

“That probably isn’t a big shock,” Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, said. “Often the big news story has a technical word that’s associated with it and, in this case, the word pandemic is not just technical but has become general. It’s probably the word by which we’ll refer to this period in the future.”

There is sound logic here. Before late March, most people probably had only a vague idea of the distinction between an epidemic and a pandemic.

It makes good copy when the word of the year is a hip neologism – Oxford picked “omnishambles” in 2012 – but sometimes the sheer and sudden ubiquity of a familiar term repels all competitors. By one estimate, use of the word “pandemic” increased by about 57,000 per cent this year. Those sorts of figures haven’t been recorded since fidget spinners arrived in 2017 (this is probably a joke).

A personal understanding

Yet other emanations of the plague year found traction. Collins considered “coronavirus”, “self-isolate”, “social-distancing” and “furlough”, but eventually settled for “lockdown”. It’s hard to remember what that last word used to mean to us.

Lockdown was something that happened to prisoners when tension spread across a detention facility. It was something imposed on neighbourhoods during a bomb threat. Now we have a more personal understanding. The word means watching Normal People alone in your pyjamas while eating the last of the EconoMart spaghetti hoops. Happy times.

The most interesting contribution to this year’s word of the year debate came, however, from the good people at Oxford Dictionaries. Those venerable lexicographers have been impressively playful in earlier times. “Bovvered”, “chav” and the crying-laughing emoji have all been recent holders of the title. In 2020, the masters of the Oxford English Dictionary threw their collective hands in the air and declared the honour would go to several “words of an unprecedented year”.

Trust the Australians – always so inventive with the English language – to land the most arresting sideways contribution

“I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had,” Casper Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, said. “The Oxford team was identifying hundreds of significant new words and usages as the year unfolded, dozens of which would have been a slam dunk for Word of the Year at any other time.”

Many of the OED’s picks are terms that were once the preserve of scientists. Scarcely one in a hundred people can have known what an R-number was before the disease arrived. Now every second amateur physician is brandishing the term with the same confidence they bring to the discussion of weather, hurling, politics or whatever else they pretend to know about.

To entries mentioned above, Oxford adds “bubbles”, “face masks”, “key workers” and “circuit breaker”. These words and phrases are common across all anglophone territories, but each nation will have its own peculiar additions. In Ireland, few will compete with the disyllabic acronym that some make of “Nphet” (honoured here by the upper-then-lower-case rendering demanded for such usages in the Irish Times stylebook).

Linguistic convulsion

The OED’s decision argues implicitly that this is the most dramatic linguistic convulsion of the current century. Some of those words will go away. Many will remain lodged in formal and demotic speech. There has not been such an influx since the second World War; “flak”, “kamikaze”, “jeep” and “radar” are still with us.

It is unlikely that anything like so many neologisms will survive the pandemic, but the everyday analogous use of epidemiological terms is here for a spell. Get used to every potential catastrophe being potentially “worse than Covid” or “not nearly so bad as Covid”.

A search on The Irish Times website finds no mention of that word for 2019. There were, at time of writing, over 17,500 usages of “Covid” in 2020. Those syllables have arrived, baby.

Trust the Australians – always so inventive with the English language – to land the most arresting sideways contribution. It seems that “rona” is (as in certain corners of Ireland) common spoken shorthand for Coronavirus there. Macquarie Dictionary, the dictionary of Australian English, shares its title between that word and the deliciously grim “doomscrolling”. That is what you were doing on your phone when, eager for more appalling news, you happened upon this relatively light-hearted piece.

Sorry to disappoint.    

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