Bushfires. A global pandemic. Lockdown. Economic recession. Racial injustice. International protests. A pivotal election. For over a decade, we have selected a word or expression that captures the ethos, mood or preoccupations of the last 12 months, driven by data showing the ways in which words have been used. But this year, how could we pick a word, or even a shortlist, to summarize the ways in which we’ve been continually knocked off our axis?
Instead, today we released a comprehensive report entitled “Words of an Unprecedented Year” which tracks some of the new words and most significant language trends to have emerged across a truly unique year. The report shows how “Covid-19” spread across the world, not just epidemiologically but through our language, becoming one of the most used nouns of the year, despite only being coined in February. It maps how we went into ”lockdown” in some countries and were asked to “shelter-in-place” in others, while “circuit breakers” made their way from Singapore to Western Europe. It marks the moment in which the term “Black Lives Matter” surged back into our collective consciousness and “Karens” made a name for themselves, while the use of “systemic racism” increased by 1,623%, compared to last year. And, as the year ground on, our conversations shifted to the political, with words such a “mail-in” increasing by 3000% during the run-up to and uncertainty of the US election.
The report makes for fascinating reading, but how do we go about selecting these words? Like all of our lexical efforts, the process is driven by data. We observe how people wield their words, how they flex them and merge them, how they pick them up and drop them again, and we record all of this objectively. We analyse huge corpus databases to understand how words are being used, when new words are being born, and when others are slipping out of popular use. This data captures real word uses of English around the world, whether in North America or the Caribbean, East or West Africa, Southeast Asia, or Australia, and helps our expert lexicographers to identify trends. We then examine these trends to identify which words truly encapsulate the events of the year.
To be considered for Word of the Year, we’re looking for words where the evidence shows it has emerged, changed, or grown in a significant way in this year in particular, and which captures a certain collective feeling about the time we’ve just experienced. For example, in 2016, when “post-truth” was named Word of the Year, we’d lived through a year in which fake news was hitting the headlines, quite literally, and public trust in institutions was plummeting. It’s always difficult to whittle down a shortlist of words that capture the breadth of events that take place within any given year. This year, our data showed us that the way we use certain words and the new words that emerged were so radically different and prolific that we have a much more detailed story to share.
And that story paints a picture: Imagine a historian in 50 years’ time—to understand what 2020 was about they would need to look no further than our language. They would see “coronavirus” replace “time” as the most commonly used noun in the English language, they would see “social distancing” become the norm, and the hope of “re-opening.” They’d see the growth of “cancel culture,” the political tension surrounding elections the world over, and thoughts turn to environmental sustainability and the future as we turn our attention to rebuilding. By releasing this longer form piece of language research, I’m hopeful that we can bring a greater understanding of both the language and our global experience to this unprecedented year.
If you’d like to know more, I invite you to join me and my colleagues, Fiona McPherson and Kate Wild, for a webinar on 10 December where we’ll give an overview of our corpus analysis-based approach to monitoring language, and this year’s particular challenges of keeping track of rapid language developments.