The Collins English Dictionary, a prestigious print and online dictionary published by HarperCollins in Glasgow, announced recently that its 2020 Word of the Year is “lockdown.”
Defining the word as “a security measure in which those inside a building or area are required to remain confined in it for a time” as well as “the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction and access to public spaces,” Collins said lockdown beat other pandemic-related words shortlisted for the title, such as coronavirus, furlough, key worker, social distancing and self-isolate.
The 4.5 billion-word Collins Corpus, which contains written material from websites, books and newspapers as well as spoken material from radio, television and conversations, registered a whopping 6,000 percent increase in its usage. It counted more than a quarter of a million uses of the word this year, compared with 4,000 in 2019.
“Language is a reflection of the world around us and 2020 has been dominated by the global pandemic,” said Collins language content consultant Helen Newstead. “We have chosen ‘lockdown’ as our word of the year because it encapsulates the shared experience of billions of people who have had to restrict their daily lives in order to contain the virus. Lockdown has affected the way we work, study, shop and socialize. With many countries entering a second lockdown, it is not a word of the year to celebrate but it is, perhaps, one that sums up the year for most of the world.” In recent years, the dictionary’s words of the year have included “climate strike” (2019) “single-use” (2018), “fake news” (2017), and “Brexit” (2016). The World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic by on March 11 set into motion global restrictions on movement, gatherings and travel. China, where the virus first appeared, was the first country to enforce a lockdown and quarantine measures in January.
Israel was one of the first countries to declare a national lockdown on March 11, enforcing social distancing and limiting public gatherings to stem the spread of the virus. Israel also became the first country to call a second lockdown on September 25.
“The decision to impose a national lockdown was correct,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters at the time, using the Hebrew word, seger, which literally means closure. “I am happy that I insisted on it. The lockdown worked.”
As I considered the 2020 Word of the Year, I wondered when the first lockdown in history took place. Some websites state that it occurred during the Plague of Justinian which began in Roman-ruled Egypt (circa 540 CE), when infected people were quarantined from the general population.
Then I noticed that Ron Klain, whom US President-elect Joe Biden has tapped to be his chief of staff, had suggested in a video conversation with the spiritual leader of his Indiana synagogue, Rabbi Dennis Sasso, that it might have been during the Plague of the Firstborn in ancient Egypt.
Klain also referred to Passover in a tweet as “the holiday marking when Jews overcame a plague with a stay-at-home order.” According to the Passover story related in the Book of Exodus, Moses ordered the Children of Israel to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood so that the avenging angel would “pass over” them and smite only the Egyptian firstborn. This was the last straw for Pharaoh, who finally let the Israelites go (circa 1450 BCE).
It is in this spirit that we voice the fervent wish and prayer that with an effective vaccine in the works, people across the world will soon be free of COVID-19 and able to celebrate the end of coronavirus lockdowns. May Collins choose a more upbeat word in 2021!