‘Blursday,’ ‘Covidiot,’ ‘Doomscrolling’ — How the Covid19 Pandemic Changed the English Language Forever
In 2019, Oxford Languages, as per annual tradition, released the ‘word of the year’: climate emergency. The year before, the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary chose “toxic.” Two years before, it was “post-truth.” These selections, at their respective times, signaled what the world, or at least felt the most pressing, engaging, and perhaps relevant issue was for that period.
Enter 2020, when reality has changed drastically, and Oxford Languages realized there couldn’t be just one ‘word of the year.’ Our language has permanently changed because of the Covid19 pandemic, in an “unprecedented,” huge way, the publisher announced.
Instead, the publisher released several words whose popularity it charted across 2020 so far. For example, “bushfire” and “impeachment” were oft-used in January, while the word “acquittal” dominated February, when the Covid19 pandemic had not yet garnered infamy and U.S. President Donald Trump had found himself in hot water. Starting in March, however, the coronavirus pandemic and all the responses to it took over not just the world, but our language, too.
In March, for example, the word “coronavirus” was everywhere, overtaking even everyday mainstays such as the word “time,” according to Oxford Languages. In April, as the world awoke to the reality of the novel coronavirus, “Covid19” and “lockdown” emerged, with “social distancing” slowly attaining popularity. The use of the word “pandemic” increased by 57000% from 2019. May saw the emergence of “reopening,” signaling the early hopes many governments gave to their people, possibly unaware of what was to come.
In June, the U.S. protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer overwhelmed world news, with words such as “Black Lives Matter” and “BIPOC” overtaking coronavirus-related words.
In the latter half of the year, words like “super spreader” and “moonshot” again gained popularity, to reflect the later stages in the pandemic and coronavirus testing respectively.
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“What was genuinely unprecedented this year was the hyper-speed at which the English-speaking world amassed a new collective vocabulary relating to the coronavirus, and how quickly it became, in many instances, a core part of the language,” Oxford Languages stated in its report. The hyper-speed also required people to coin new, pandemic-induced terms — “blursday,” to signal the phenomenon of weeks blending together; “in-person” to define the absence or unusualness of face-to-face activities under lockdown; and “doomscrolling,” capturing the mood of people engaging in the only activity they could to keep up with the outside word — endless scrolling on social media, consuming negative content, worsening mental health.
The pandemic also changed the context of some humdrum words we used in everyday conversation, such as “remote,” previously associated with a village, or control. In 2020, the word “remote” had a makeover, now used in relation to learning or voting. Words related to masks also had a cultural update in meaning, with the words “maskless,” “unmasked,” “anti-masker,” and “mask-shaming” capturing pandemic-specific meanings, perhaps for a long time to come.
The current list signals what words we focused on during the pandemic, possibly giving us a window into what we considered important or relevant at the time. It not only introduces pandemic-specific terms but also heavily medical and technical terms, such as “community transmission” or “flatten the curve,” which will only help for the public to know in the long term. Unfortunately, the weight of the pandemic in conversation led to a drop in the use of the word “climate emergency,” which signals the shifting priorities environmentalists are cautioning against.
Ultimately, these new words “seem to hold the weight of the world on their shoulders,” Oxford Languages head of product, Katherine Connor Martin, told the New York Times. The pandemic “was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year,” she added. In 2021, we may eventually go back to normal, but we will have added several monumental words to our vocabulary, forever memorializing a time that was uncertain and foreign for each and every one of us.
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