It’s no surprise that quite a few of the words on Collins Word of the Year 2020 shortlist have one big thing in common: the pandemic. Something that changed everyone’s lives so profoundly – leaving no country or continent untouched – was bound to have a significant impact on our language. And our list shows us that it’s not just about the disease or its symptoms. The word “coronavirus” is there, of course, with an extraordinary 35,000-fold increase in use year-on-year. But the social impacts – the changes to our behaviour and way of life – loom even larger.
The restrictions placed on how we move about and interact with one another arguably had the most impact. And they’re represented first and foremost by “social distancing”, a concept now so pervasive that it has also entered the language as a verb, “to socially distance”. Another way in which we’ve had to extend the exclusion zone around our bodies is by “self-isolation”, which is now more commonly used as the verb “to self-isolate”, as in “I’m self-isolating after developing a cough”.
Work was another area of seismic change. Many were made redundant, while others found themselves working from home. A significant proportion, though, were placed on “furlough” – not dismissed, but told to stop working, until businesses could get going again. A word previously confined to the HR departments of companies looking to cut costs, its use surged as the economic crisis unfolded. One group of people who had to keep going, come what may, of course, were the “key workers”: not just doctors, nurses – but also refuse collectors, postal staff, and maintenance workers – all those who keep the wheels of society turning. The impulse to show how grateful we all were took physical form in terms of clapping on the doorstep, but also came through in countless messages on social media, which contributed to a 60-fold increase in usage compared with 2019.
So what about the word of the year itself? “Lockdown”, with its heavy, clunking syllables and heavier associations, is the condition we’ve most dreaded in 2020 – a state of national stasis, where almost everything that constitutes normal public life is suspended. Under lockdown, our waking hours get a lot smaller. We return to a simpler state – which some have, in fact appreciated – but it’s a far more restricted one. We see few people, and fewer places. We’re quite literally housebound. It’s not a shock to remember, then, that lockdown was originally a piece of prison vocabulary: it’s when inmates are confined to their cells because of some disturbance on the wing. 2020 is year that the meaning of the word shifted irrevocably: in most people’s minds, lockdown is now a public health measure – its use having increased exponentially since 2019.
Which is not to say that 2020 was all about the pandemic. Other things happened! For example, “Megxit”. Harry and Meghan’s decision to stand down as senior members of the royal family was a classic piece of tabloid fodder in a year otherwise lacking in these tokens of relative normality. “BLM” – or Black Lives Matter – was a huge antiracism movement that showed that social progress is possible even in the midst of a health crisis. And, of course, the internet carried on its merry way, producing terms like “TikToker”. The video sharing site eclipsed all others as a venue for memes and a peculiar new kind of self-expression, at least for Generation Z, for whom TikToking is practically a way of life.
There’s just one more word left – and I feel it’s good to out on a “mukbang”. With syllables redolent of mess and noise, this is in fact one of English’s very few Korean loanwords (another is taekwondo). It simply means “a video or webcast in which the host eats a large quantity of food for the entertainment of viewers”. This might be a strange concept – but at least it’s one no lockdown or social distancing can get in the way of.
Written by David Shariatmadari, author of Don’t Believe A Word: From Myths to Misunderstandings – How Language Really Works, out now in paperback