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2020: a worldwide wordy whirlwind

Only when we reach the end of a significant chunk of time can we truly reflect on the way language has changed and formed in such a short space of time. And the 67 months of 2020 were no exception – on the contrary, it’s the first year in memory that the Oxford English Dictionary has struggled to pin down just one word for its annual Word of the Year accolade. Instead, they produced an entire REPORT entitled Words of an Unprecedented Year.

Things have moved so quickly this year, even we are resorting to a revised ‘covid words’ blog post!

Social media took off, Zoom… zoomed in? People took to the streets to speak out against systemic racism, climate change and politics. In short, being supposedly limited to our ‘inside voices’ seemingly made us shout louder than ever before and our hyper-connected presence throughout 2020 made us all the more aware of it.

‘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.’

How then, in a year when we were supposedly stuck indoors with much of our daily life ‘on pause’, did so much happen in the word world? We like to think it’s because, in the absence of touch, handshaking and a coffee or a wine with friends, the words we used truly grew in significance; multiplying to fill the space that would normally be occupied by eye contact or a smile now hidden behind a mask.

Are other languages riding the same word wave?

While the OED may have struggled to choose just one ‘Word of the Year’, it seems one voracious bit of vocab reached globally unprecedented heights: 'lockdown' (Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Year), whether that was in its original English form or otherwise. That's right, despite the pandemic spanning the entire globe, in a typical display of anglocentric wor(l)d domination, many languages adopted the English-language term as a neologism or a transliteration, with examples stretching from the German 'der Lockdown', via the Italian 'il lockdown' and right up to the Hindi 'लॉकडाउन' and Urdu 'لاک ڈاون' (pronounced laak-down). French, Spanish and Portuguese, however, opted for their own brand of latinate lexicon, preferring ‘le confinement’, ‘el confinamiento’ and ‘o confinamento’ respectively.

What’s more, despite the concept of ‘lockdown’ being replicated worldwide the approaches and, logically, the words used to describe it differed: perhaps that’s why the terminology in Europe reflected ‘a feeling of imprisonment and isolation’, whereas the sense in Mandarin was more of ‘blockade or blocking […] often used to refer to “coercive force to sever contact with the outside world”’, to more accurately portray the political and cultural response. Our personal favourite, Farsi, went as far as to use 'تعطیلی' which is the same word as 'holiday', from an Arabic root meaning 'idleness'.

Whether we usher these 2020isms into the 'new normal' and beyond, or they come to be preserved as a cultural time capsule, there's no denying it has been a fascinating time for language lovers.

Got a word that doesn’t feature on the list or a translation or foreign-language version of one that does? We’d love to hear them!


Written by Amy Reid, WIT Account Manager


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