Today, i want to introduce you to some of the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2020 words of the year. For the first time ever, the Oxford Dictionary was unable to choose one single standout word from the previous 12 months. Instead, as a consequence of the unprecedented events of 2020, they have highlighted a number of highly significant developments in our vocabulary! So I’m going to introduce you to some of the words and phrases included in the “Word of the Year” report!

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Vocabulary List

Unprecedented (adj) – never having happened or existed in the past

This century has witnessed environmental destruction on an unprecedented level

Prominent (adj) – very well known and important 

He is a prominent politician in his country

Lexicographer (n) – a person whose job is to write dictionaries

My friend wants to be a lexicographer

momentous (adj) – very important because of effects on future events

Whether or not to move overseas was a momentous decision for the family

To encompass (v) – to include different types of things

The festival is to encompass everything from music, theatre, and ballet to literature, cinema, and the visual arts

Linguistic (adj) – connected with language or the study of language

She is researching the linguistic development of young children

Epidemiologist (n) – someone who studies diseases and how they are found, spread, and controlled in groups of people

They are epidemiologists studying the causes of diseases

To impeach (v) – to make a formal statement saying that a public official is guilty of a serious offence in connection with their job, especially in the US

The governor was impeached for wrongful use of state money

To be completely honest with all of you listening, I’ve actually been planning on making this episode for over a month. At the end of November every year, Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary as well as a number of other dictionaries, announces an Oxford Dictionaries UK Word of the Year and an Oxford Dictionaries US Word of the Year (these are sometimes the same word). Although the Oxford English Dictionary is not the only, or even the first, organization to run a word of the year competition, as a British person I feel attached to Oxford’s choices. Therefore, i thought the word of the year announcement would be an excellent opportunity to introduce all of you to a new piece of vocabulary, as well as exploring some of the previous winners. I will still look at some previous winners, but I am not able to focus on one specific word of 2020. Due to the unprecedented events of 2020, and the incredible developments in the vocabularies of all major languages caused by such events, Oxford expanded its yearly award to include multiple ‘words of the year.’

Before I introduce you to some of the words mentioned in the Oxford English Dictionary’s announcement, let me explain how the winner is usually chosen and what are the requirements for a word to be included! To be selected as the Word of the Year, the word does not have to be invented within the past twelve months but it does need to have become prominent or notable during that time. Interestingly, the word might not actually be in the dictionary, and even if it wins the Word of the Year title it doesn’t automatically get included in future editions! The Oxford Dictionaries Words of the Year are selected by editorial staff from each of the Oxford dictionaries; including lexicographers and consultants to the dictionary team, and editorial, marketing, and publicity staff.

For the first time ever, there is not one single word of the year this year. For what reason? According to Oxford Dictionaries, 2020 has seen so many momentous events that it has expanded its competition to encompass several “Words of an Unprecedented Year”. Casper Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, said: “I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had. 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.” 2020 is a year which cannot be summed up in one single word; there were too many words to describe the events of 2020. All languages evolve over time, especially in response to social, political, technological, environmental, cultural, and scientific changes! The events of 2020 have been so unprecedented, and there have been so many changes, that our vocabulary has developed dramatically over the past few months!

So let’s look at some of the new words mentioned by Oxford Dictionaries in their ‘Words of the Year.’ The language of Covid 19 has been influential! Although the word coronavirus was first used in the 1960s, and “mainly used by scientific and medical specialists,” by April this year it had become “one of the most frequently used nouns in the entire English language”. By May, the term Covid-19 became more common than the word coronavirus. Incredibly, Covid 19 became more common than the word ‘time!’ The arrival of the pandemic in the English speaking world saw surges in the use of circuit breaker, lockdown, and shelter-in-place, along with support bubbles, face masks, PPE, medics, delivery drivers, and key workers, frontliners, or essential workers. All of these words and phrases reflect the developing health situation this year! One of the year’s most remarkable linguistic developments has been how many scientific terms have entered the public’s vocabulary, as we have all become amatuer epidemiologists. Phrases that used to be only used by scientists, such as r number, flatten the curve, and community transmission, are now commonly used by normal people!

One of the consequences of Covid 19 has been the radical change in work life. Since March 2020, hundreds of thousands of people around the globe have been forced to work from home rather than commuting to their offices. Connected to this, the words remote and remotely have seen a growth of more than 300% since March. Moreover, the words mute and unmute have had a significant rise in usage this year; these are very useful words for Zoom calls, Skype, Microsoft teams, or any other video platform! Other words getting a lot more use include workcation – a holiday in which you also work – and staycation – a holiday at home or in your home country. 

Other news events have also been reflected in language. I actually forgot that early in 2020 Trump was impeached by the US House of Representatives; in the early months of 2020, the words impeachment and acquittal were used all the time. The US election also contributed to popular vocabulary choices; especially mail-in  which has seen an increase of 3,000%. Use of Black Lives Matter and BLM also surged in usage! Clearly, there have been so many newly popular words this year, and our everyday vocabularies have evolved so dramatically, that it is impossible for the Oxford Dictionary to choose just one ‘Word of the Year.’ I have mentioned so many words in this article that it is also impossible for me to explain the meanings of all of them. I really recommend all of you look through the transcript of the podcast and look up any you don’t understand! They are all so useful to understand contemporary conversations! 

As i mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, i’m going to briefly talk about a few previous winners of Oxford’s ‘Word of the Year.’ These are a few of my personal favourites! The 2009 UK Word of the Year was awarded to simples. This choice is fascinating  because it is a catchphrase from a car insurance advert featuring a meerkat. Think about that – so many British people were quoting the catchphrase of a squeaking, CGI meerkat that simples became word of the year! 2012’s winner, and definitely my favorite winner, was omnishambles. Omnishambles refers to a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations. It was popularised by the political satire ‘The Thick of It’ (if any of you are curious about British politics, i strongly recommend you to watch the Thick of It! I think it might be on netflix!). 2015’s ‘Word of Year’ wasn’t even an actual word – It was the crying laughing emoji!

Final Thought

What is your personal word of the year? What word have you learned this year that has been the most useful or interesting to you? 2020 has introduced hundreds, if not thousands, of new words, phrases, and idioms into our vocabulary! Have you struggled to keep up with these changes? For the first part of 2020 I was living in Taiwan, which compared to the rest of the world was barely affected by the pandemic. So when i returned to the UK, there were so many changes to the language that i had to get used to! My family were using scientific terms around the dinner table, all of my friends were working from home, and the media was speaking in a completely different way than a year ago. Do you think that these changes to our language are permanent? We’ve talked before about how language can affect the way you think, so do you think the linguistic developments of 2020 will change our thought processes in the future?

Link to Oxford English Dictionary Words of the Year Report

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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