A number of Word Wrangling editions are based on my Grammar’s Book of Wordliness blogs. This one isn’t.
Hi, hello welcome to word wrangling with Terry Victor, a series of up close and personal encounters with the English tongue as we spit, roast and drawl it.
If 2020 has given us anything it’s a shitload of vocabulary with which to illustrate and argue for our existence. This is my personal mix’n’match collection of the terms that have worn me down, made me groan or lifted me up. Almost certainly I am going miss words that matter to you. You won’t know for certain whether that’s happened until you get to the end of this podcast but, if that is the case, feel free to scream and rage secure in the knowledge that no one will pay that much attention with all the other angst that’s been flying around. It’ll all end in tiers. Tier 2, tier 3, tier 4. I hope that’s not you, but everybody’s got to be somewhere.
This is word wrangling the words of 2020.
Big dictionaries traditionally announce their words of the year in time to beat the Christmas rush. 2020, the pandemic and the politics, offered a heavy coronavirus bundle for the lexmeisters at Collins and Oxford to unpick.
Collins’ dictionaries were first out of the blocks, almost jumping the gun, as they declared lockdown to be the front runner. The Collins’ databases had registered 250,000 uses of the word ‘lockdown’. When compared to a measure of around 4,000 in 2019 that is pretty impressive.
In the general sense that we have all had to come to terms with this year, ‘lockdown’ was originally found in prisons and psychiatric facilities during the 1970s. In that context, it was used to denote a condition of exceptional confinement. The broader definition evolved and is now familiar as ‘enforced quarantine’. However, ‘lockdown’ is not as absolute as it might sound and has often been interpreted to suit personal convenience.
One genuinely 2020 term, coined by medical researchers, is The Cummings Effect. It may not have troubled the word of the year lists but the inexcusable behaviour of Dominic Cummings, prime minister Johnson’s then senior advisor, seriously affected the health of our beleaguered islands. I said inexcusable but, in fact, Cummings, who, among other equally ludicrous excuses, claimed that he was testing his eyesight by driving to a tourist destination during lockdown, was actually excused. By Johnson. He even got a pay rise. The ‘Cummings Effect’ makes it onto my long list. Along with the social media catchphrase it generated: Should’ve gone to Barnard Castle, the perfect parody of a Specsavers advertising slogan.
The Collins top ten also includes coronavirus, furlough, self-isolate, social distancingand key worker. What a year! But the world and the news continued to spin.
In Minneapolis, in May 2020, an unarmed African American called George Floyd was killed by police. Nothing unusual in that, you may think, but this police action was caught on video. Floyd’s final words, ‘I can’t breathe’ haunted the news coverage. Subsequent to that, and other suddenly newsworthy racist acts, lexicographers at Collins recorded a 581% increase in usage for BLM, the abbreviation for the Black Lives Matter movement. ‘I can’t breathe’ was already a campaigning slogan for BLM. It had been so since 2014 when an unarmed African American called Eric Garner was killed by the police.
In June, a UK BLM protest, culminated in the toppling of the statue of a Bristol slave trader. Edward Colston (1636 to 1721) had been cancelled. This was cancel culture in action. The notion of cancelling or rejecting a public figure who has in some way transgressed what is acceptable has been current for a few years now, but the term ‘cancel culture’ came into its own in 2020. It’s been getting quite a bit of traction.
Collins also highlighted some lighter bits and bobs – Megxit, Tik-Toker and Mukbang – but their inrush had little impact on the walls of this Podcastle so I think I’ll leave them hanging there.
Meanwhile, the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledged the sheer volume of pandemic-related terms. Incoming tides of major word usage were shown in a timetable; while stray vocab was scattered in the wake. They could offer no single word of the year for 2020.
March and April: Coronavirus and Covid-19 (that’s Covid, if you are in a hurry) appeared in short order. ‘Covid-19’ was actually coined in February, and in the dictionary two months later! ‘Lockdown’ and Social Distancing showed up in April. The OED recorded an explosion in the use of ‘Black Lives Matter’ in June, then in July, the dictionary’s corpus-metrics gave us ‘Cancel Culture’.
Moonshot appeared on UK horizons in September as a marketing-metaphor for mass Covid testing. October saw Superspreader come to the fore for a short while.
Among the scattered items in the OED’s Covid-19 lingo you can inevitably find some of Collins’ words of the year: ‘lockdown’ not the least among them. Such linguistic goodies as R-number (that’s R if you are in a hurry), doomscrolling (searching online media for ever worsening news), and covidiot (a blend of ‘covid’ and idiot, for a person such as an anti-masker, who does not follow Covid-secure guidelines.
Then there’s PPE or Personal Protective Equipment, which has now become a familiar item in our discourse. And the words of 2020 keep on coming and coming. So stick that in your support bubble. Known in some quarters as a quaranteam.
Neither Collins nor Oxford found the need to include herd immunity in their 2020 diagnoses of the language … OK, so that definitely didn’t happen then, did it?
Some ‘covidiots’ referred to the pandemic as a plandemic, promoting a conspiracy theory as ugly as a viral infection.
Cinemas closed, and blockbusters were postponed, but some of the language used by non-fictional authorities suggested the experience of living in an action thriller: lockdown quarantine gifted us Circuit-breaker, Firebreak and, my favourite, Flatten the Curve. Plotline Frontline Heroes defending the Air Bridge. Strapline: Hands! Face. Space. Directed by Quentin Quarantino! Thanks for that.
Then there’s the joys of remote working and all that waist up fashion.
In the year 2019 BC (that’s ‘Before Corona’) Oxford’s word list of was pretty much all related to Climate Emergency, which had been that year’s chosen word. In 2020 there was not much singing from the eco-hymnsheet, except when anthropause appeared in June 2020. It’s a great word that reflects the pandemic-related hiatus in global travel and consequent reduction in the damage we do.
And then there’s Karen.
‘Karen’ is a word that crept up on me when I wasn’t looking. Generically, ‘Karen’ is a stereotypically racist white woman. But the edges of that definition have blurred to the degree that a ‘Karen’ now might be any woman who is seen as problematic. The evolving cliché is a middle-aged woman who asks to speak to the manager. Somehow, ‘Karen’ also references a particular hairstyle. Was there an original Karen? A Karen-zero? Or did she evolve from a Canadian comedian’s stand up? Whatever. ‘Karen’ is definitely one of my words of the year. If only to piss off all those ‘Karens’ out there.
This is word wrangling the words of 2020.
Welcome to the coronapocalypse! Most of words in my entirely non-authoritative list are here for no other reason than I admire their wit, wordplay and groaning ways with a pun. No metrics are involved. You could say that my whack-a-mole compilation approach is far from scientific. However, I have one thing in common with the dictionary makers at Collins and Oxford: in 2020 the language of Rona is never far away. ‘Rona’? That’s a familiar diminutive for Coronavirus, in case you haven’t been introduced. AKA Miss Rona, Lady Rona and theRona. Also called roro, cozza and covva.
Miley Cyrus is another fine alias. Or, sometimes, simply Miley. The singer Miley Cyrus, of course, provides the rhyming slang inspiration that leads to coronavirus. Both she and her dad, the singer Billy Ray Cyrus have long stood in for virus.
Generationally, I am a baby boomer. So, the chirpy coronavirus nickname Boomer Removerdid not make my year any better. Incidentally, apropos of boomer, how will future sociologists categorize kids conceived or delivered in these times of restriction? Generation Covid? Gen C? Quaranteenies? Coronababies? Coronials?
To be honest, it’s all been a bit up and down on the 2020 coronacoaster as we tried to survive the experience as best we could. It’s been enough to give anyone coronaphobia or coronanoia.
A time of coronalingus, of DIY haircuts – coronacuts – , and stay-at home drinking. It’s always virtual happy hour somewhere. Right here, right now, it’s Locktail hour. Do you fancy a quarantini? No, I have no idea what’s in it. A ‘quarantini’ is a cocktail of whatever happens to be available at home.
Still drinking, a good number of unrequired workers have found that a furlough merlot will help the quarantine’n’chill days go by. I mean, come on, without the structure of a working week every day was a blursday.
In some online social networks the word quarantine has been reinvented as corn teen: often the first syllable is replaced with a head of corn emoji.
Hand sanitiser has come to be known by some folk with too much time on their hands as handsancisco and by other ronaloners as bacbac. Which only goes to show that some neologisms and reinvigorated words are absolutely necessary, whilst others spill out from word games that are being played to while away another few minutes of lockdown time.
Meanwhile, the politics and practicalities of mask-wearing and masklessness have enriched our language. It can get a little confusing. Mask shaming is aimed at those who don’t wear a mask by those who do, and at those who do by those who don’t.
Mask-ne, a blend of mask and acne, gives a name to the spotty condition of complexions that suffer from the moist-breath hot-house facial-environment which has become the new normal.
Maskulinity is a butch refusal to wear a face mask. How very anti-ma (that’s anti-mask on the model of ‘antifa’: anti-fascist).
My favourite mask word is maskara – that’s the extra-application of eye make-up to counter the anonymity of a masked lower face. You work with what you’ve got.
Which leads me to ask: are you, or have you ever been WFH? WTF is ‘WFH’? ‘WFH’ is working from home. One way or another, the ‘WFH’ contingent, and especially all those Zoom meetings that sustain them, added so much to the language this year.
You’d better slip on some upperwear and settle in your zoom room, you know, that’s the area you keep tidy or videofurbished as the best background for zoom conferencing. But beware of quaransheen – a shiny face on screen is never a good look – try to avoid the elephant in the zoom, and don’t get zoomed out with zoom fatigue or you are fated to become a zoombie.
At least you get to avoid that awful and awkward elbow to elbow greeting that somehow misses the 2 metre rule: the egregious etiquette that is known as an elbump.
So, there we are. 2020 has been a neologism frenzy and I have just about scratched the surface.
My word of the year is a phrase. I was tempted by ‘I can’t breathe’ but in a way the phrase that I have selected reflects that horror by giving voice to the attitude of the uniformed officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck. And the three others who stood by and let it happen.
My selection may seem slight in the face of 2020 but this phrase has been used in every zoom call, probably in the world but certainly in my experience. It’s a practical phrase with any number of figurative possibilities. And my Word Wrangling phrase of the year is …
‘You are on mute’.
That was Word Wrangling the Words of 2020. Thank you for your company.
Have a hopeful New Year.
‘Word Wrangling the Words of 2020’ was originally published as a Word Wrangling with Terry Victor podcast on December 30th 2020. It can be found on Amazon and Spotify.