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Every year, the Oxford Word of the Year uses evidence of usage to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months in a word or expression. But in 2020, just like our daily lives, the English language has undergone enormous change, adapting rapidly and repeatedly to world events. So, in such an unusual year, instead of choosing a single word, Oxford Languages have today published a comprehensive new language report: Words of an Unprecedented Year.
The report digs into extensive data and evidence of usage to identify and understand how language reflects the rapid change in the world around us. In January, ‘bushfire’ and ‘impeachment’ burst on to the scene with huge increases in usage, driven by current events, followed by ‘acquittal’. And then, of course, came the global spread of ‘coronavirus’ and ‘Covid-19’. By March this year, ‘coronavirus’ was one of the most frequently used nouns in the English language, exceeding even the use of the word ‘time’, while ‘Covid-19’ was a new word, first coined in February, and had overtaken ‘coronavirus’ by May.
From there, depending on where you are in the world, you may have experienced a ‘circuit breaker’, ‘lockdown’, or have been asked to ‘shelter-in-place’, all words that saw huge increases in usage from March. This was coupled with a 300 per cent usage growth in the words ‘remote’ and ‘remotely’ and a 500 per cent increase in the word ‘unmute’, reflecting the changes in working lives for thousands of people around the world.
But Covid-19 wasn’t the only major upheaval this year. Despite our inability to gather in large numbers, the year saw a surge in demonstrations and activism that is reflected in our language. In June, ‘Black Lives Matter’, and the abbreviated ‘BLM’, surged into usage and have remained high since. Use of ‘conspiracy theory’ has almost doubled between October 2019 and October 2020 and use of the term ‘QAnon’ has increased by a 960 per cent over the same period. The latter half of the year has been dominated by words such as ‘mail-in’—which has seen an increase of 3,000 per cent compared to 2019—while our data shows that ‘Brexit’ has seen an 80 per cent reduction in usage this year.
Looking back on 2020, Casper Grathwohl, President, Oxford Languages, says, 'I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had. The team at Oxford were 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. 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.'
While we all hope for more stability next year, recording and analysing new words and their uses offers unique insight into understanding the current situation and navigating these ‘unprecedented times’.