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OP-ED: Our new vocabulary for our new normal

  • Published at 07:57 pm December 28th, 2020
The word of the year 2020  pandemic
The word of the year 2020 PIXABAY

The word ‘pandemic’ has become a part of all our lives now

The task to decide a single word or words in the year 2020, roiled by a public health crisis, an economic downturn, racial injustice, climate disaster, political division, and rampant disinformation -- was a challenge.

For the editors at Dictionary.com, the choice was overwhelmingly focused. From our perspective as documenters of the English language, one word kept running through the profound and manifold ways our lives have been upended -- and our language so rapidly transformed -- in this unprecedented year.

The editors, based on online searches, concluded that the “2020 Word Of The Year” was “pandemic” and defined it as “a disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world.” The year 2020 was indeed painful. And yet, the loss of life and livelihood caused by Covid-19 pandemic defies definition.

Nearly 80 million confirmed cases, the pandemic has claimed over 1.75 million lives across the globe and is still rising to new peaks with the fresh outbreak dubbed as Covid-20.

No doubt the pandemic has severely dented social and economic life on a historic scale and scope, globally impacting every sector of society -- not to mention its emotional and psychological toll.

All other events for most of 2020, from the protests for racial justice to a heated US presidential election, were shaped by the pandemic. Despite the hardships, the pandemic also inspired the best of humanity: Resilience and resourcefulness in the face of struggle.

Languages evolve and adapt to new realities and circumstances. This deadly coronavirus outbreak has been reflected in our language, notably in the word pandemic itself. As the world was shaken from the pandemic, the searches for the word “pandemic” skyrocketed 13,575% on Dictionary.com compared to 2019.

It appeared to have jumped out of history textbooks, and joined a cluster of other terms that users searched for in massive numbers, whether to learn an unfamiliar word used during a government briefing or to process the swirl of media headlines: Asymptomatic, CDC, coronavirus, furlough, nonessential, quarantine, and sanitizer, to name a few. 

As the pandemic upended life in 2020, it also dramatically reshaped our language, requiring a whole new vocabulary for talking about our new reality.

Among all searches, the volume for pandemic sustained the highest levels on-site over the course of 2020, averaging a 1000% increase, month over month, relative to previous years. Because of its ubiquity as the defining context of 2020, it remained in the top 10% of all lookups for much of the year.

Glossary and vocabulary researchers, based on a prediction by epidemiologists to virologists agree that the pandemic defined in 2020 will dominate the years to come. It is a consequential word for a consequential year.

In the spring, the pandemic introduced a host of new and newly prominent words that, normally, only public health professionals knew and used.

Expanding the glossary for daily life included: Air bubble; antibody tests; antigen test; antimalarial drugs; asymptomatic; conspiracy theory; contact tracing; corona-cure; Covid-dedicated hospitals; Covid-19; Covidiot; debunk fake news; diagnostic tests; disinformation; distance learning; endemic; epidemic; epidemiologist; face masks; fake health remedies; fake health tips; flatten the curve; frontliner; hand sanitizer; handwashing; health facilities; healthcare; herd immunity; hydroxychloroquine; infodemic; isolation; lockdown; mutation; N95; novel coronavirus; PCR test; PPE; public health; quaranteam; quarantine; second wave; social distancing; strain; superspreader; take-out; vaccine; ventilator; virologist; virtual court; webinar; work remotely; Zoom; so on and so forth.

The resilience and resourcefulness people confronted the pandemic with also manifested itself in tremendous linguistic creativity. Throughout 2020, the editorial teams of various dictionaries have been tracking a growing body of so-called “corona coinages” that have given expression -- and have offered some relief from tragedy, some connection in isolation -- to the lived experience of a surreal year.

The pandemic, despite causing havoc, agony, and trauma among millions worldwide, surprisingly has united the world of vocabulary into one global village, eagerly waiting for the vaccine and an eventual solution for the pandemic.

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.

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