© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Too Much Happened In 2020 For Oxford Languages To Pick Only 1 'Word Of The Year'


OK, every fall, the Oxford English Dictionary picks a word of the year. It's something that captures the way the English language changed in those 12 months.


In 2013, the word of the year was selfie. In 2015, it was just a crying-laughing emoji. Those were simpler times, weren't they?

KATHERINE CONNOR MARTIN: This year, when we did the same thing that we always do and looked at a bunch of words and looked back at all of our data, it was - well, it was very overwhelming.

GREENE: Overwhelming, I'm sure. That is Katherine Connor Martin, an editor with the Oxford English Dictionary.

INSKEEP: She says in this strange and unprecedented year, they couldn't settle on just one word. So for the first time ever, they chose a bunch. Coronavirus is on the list. And at one point near the beginning of the pandemic, Martin says we were using that word as much as the most common English noun.

CONNOR MARTIN: It was coming up at a similar level of frequency as the word time. It ended up affecting how we talked about everything.

GREENE: We also learned once-clinical words like PPE and N95. Another word that has made the list - doom-scrolling, you know, when you're staring at your phone in the middle of the night, reading all of the bad news.

CONNOR MARTIN: That was a neologism this year. And it is simultaneously a word that is about the pandemic, but also a word that is about everything else.

INSKEEP: So let's move on to everything else. January saw spikes in the words bush fire and impeachment. Remember when those were big news? Remember when impeachment was supposed to be the biggest news of the year? As the year dragged on, news stories brought new vocabulary.

GREENE: That's right. Racial justice protests over the summer prompted the addition of Black Lives Matter to the list. And then there was that big thing that happened earlier this month.

CONNOR MARTIN: You started to see things like in-person voting, these new phrases that weren't salient things to say before.

INSKEEP: The dictionary released its report on the many words of the year this week. And Katherine Connor Martin sees at least one silver lining.

CONNOR MARTIN: This language has gone wild. It's done so many things, and we've all kept up with it. And I think nothing shows you more the elasticity, the creativity, just, like, the wonders of languages than that kind of situation.

INSKEEP: Yes, wonderful. We've all adapted our language. Now, here's to 2021 being the kind of year that has just one word of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEVY, PARK BIRD'S "IF I COULD RIDE A BIKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!