My Word: Unmasking the word of the year

Although I shy away from annual predictions and prefer to study words, I think it’s safe to say that the pandemic will continue to have a global impact throughout the coming years.

A woman wearing a face mask walks past coronavirus-related graffiti in central London in October. (photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN SIBLEY)
A woman wearing a face mask walks past coronavirus-related graffiti in central London in October.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN SIBLEY)
There must be a word for it, but the Oxford Dictionary this year could not find it. It is an occupational hazard of newspaper columnists everywhere to spend the last month of the calendar summing up the events of the previous 12 months. The particularly foolhardy venture predictions about the coming year. Anyone willing to print their guess of what 2021 will bring must be either especially brave or a gambler. If there’s one thing that 2020 showed the world, it’s that you never really know what lies in store.
Casper Grathwohl, Oxford Dictionary president, was quoted stating: “I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had. The Oxford team was identifying hundreds of significant new words and usages as the year unfolded, dozens of which would have been a slam dunk for Word of the Year at any other time.
“It’s both unprecedented and a little ironic – in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other.”
Instead of declaring one clear winner, Oxford University Press produced a “Words of an Unprecedented Year Report,” which included: COVID-19, WFH (work from home), lockdown, circuit-breaker, support bubbles, key workers, furlough, Black Lives Matter and moonshot.
The wordsmiths at Merriam-Webster had no problem determining 2020’s most significant word: Pandemic. “Sometimes a single word defines an era, and it’s fitting that in this exceptional – and exceptionally difficult – year, a single word came immediately to the fore as we examined the data that determines what our Word of the Year will be,” Merriam-Webster announced in its press statement.
There is no doubt that 2020 was the Year of Corona – or COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus. Whatever you call it – and I’m not surprised that SARS-CoV-2 didn’t catch on – the pandemic left its mark on society, the economy, politics and language.
Collins Dictionary reported “an extraordinary 35,000-fold increase in use year-on-year” of the word coronavirus in 2020. 
Collins lexicographers last month chose “lockdown” as their word of the year, with several other coronavirus-related contenders on the shortlist, including: self-isolate, furlough and social distancing.
“Under lockdown, our waking hours get a lot smaller. We return to a simpler state – which some have, in fact appreciated – but it’s a far more restricted one. We see few people, and fewer places. We’re quite literally housebound. It’s not a shock to remember, then, that lockdown was originally a piece of prison vocabulary: it’s when inmates are confined to their cells because of some disturbance on the wing. 2020 is year that the meaning of the word shifted irrevocably: in most people’s minds, lockdown is now a public health measure – its use having increased exponentially since 2019,” wrote David Shariatmadari in a blog.
I decided several months ago to make an effort to replace “social distancing” with “spatial distancing.” It sounds better to this particular Collins (no relation to the dictionary folk.)
As 2019 drew to a close, I wrote a column about the words of the decade, singling out the ubiquitous #hashtag as the hallmark of the period. This year the hashtag has been overtaken by the Zoom link. Just 12 months ago, most of us had no idea that Zoom with a capital “Z” was a thing. Now we’re proficient in Zooming and the term “Zoombombing” has even appeared to describe hackers or other uninvited guests crashing a Zoom event. And how often did you use the word “unmute” before the spring of 2020? “Online” definitely became a much-used word amid the closures/lockdowns.
Other expressions also changed meaning this year. “Flattening the curve,” in my mind, previously related to trying to get into shape – that was in a time when gyms and swimming pools were open. Remember them? That’s before we all became amateur epidemiologists and “R” stopped being a letter and became a number and topic of speculation among laypeople and fans of the movie Contagion. The term “herd immunity” was heard everywhere. 
The Italian origins of the word “quarantine” never seemed more appropriate. The word stems back to the 40 days that a ship suspected of carrying contagious disease was isolated in port in Venice in the Middle Ages. “Pandemic” – from the Greek “pan” (“all”) and “demos” (“people”) – is also apt, as Merriam-Webster noted: “Its literal meaning is ‘of all the people.’” Millions of people around the global village – from the wealthy and famous to the poor and overlooked – were affected by the virus.
Among the phrases that proliferated in 2020, according to the Oxford report, were: mask up, anti-mask, anti-masker and mask-shaming.
IF I’M GOING to be a “super-spreader” (another lexical hit this year) it should be of new words, rather than anything pernicious. Let me take the opportunity to remind readers of a touching tribute to a coronavirus victim. My former colleague Hilary Leila Krieger and her bother, Jonathan, are commemorating their father, Neil Krieger, through a word he coined back in his college days. The Krieger siblings are making progress in their effort to get “orbisculate” – to describe when you accidentally squirt citrus juice in your eye – recognized and accepted by dictionaries. You can join and follow their efforts at
New terms were born – or gained popularity – as a result of the pandemic; others are on the endangered list. Last year, I included “FOMO” as one of the terms that defined the decade. Fear of Missing Out – the joke’s on all of us! This was the year when global travel was virtually grounded. According to the Oxford report usage of the word “staycation” – “a holiday at home or in your home country” – increased by 380% in 2020. (Although it sometimes feels like I’m one of the few Israelis who hasn’t been to Dubai in the three months since the peace agreement was signed with the United Arab Emirates.)
I’m wondering whether the younger generation will ever know the original meaning of the term “like peas in a pod.” I don’t know anyone who regularly used “pod” in the sense of “social bubble” (or kapsula, as we call it in Hebrew) before this year. And will the very concept of a “snow day” off school melt away as classes are so frequently moved to online formats? Talk about empty words.
As someone who both works and plays with words, I have been fascinated to see how language adapted to this strange new era. Hebrew-speakers, for example, came up with the terms “minyan mirpeset” and “minyan rehov” – balcony prayer-gathering and street prayer-gathering – to describe the makeshift outdoor synagogues that evolved as brick-and-mortar buildings remained closed.
Pertinently, Hebrew has a special verb for “wearing a mask”: la’atot masecha. A few months ago, the Hebrew Language Academy published an explanation of the verb and its roots, among them the painfully appropriate verse from Leviticus 13:45
“And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and the hair of his head shall go loose, and he shall cover his upper lip, and shall cry: ‘Unclean, unclean’” (translation: Mechon Mamre).
In tune with the biblical text, I urge readers to continue to cover their upper lips (and noses), to avoid spreading the plague; while my British background calls for having a stiff upper lip: “Keep calm and carry on.”
Although I shy away from annual predictions and prefer to study words, I think it’s safe to say that the pandemic will continue to have a global impact throughout the coming years. “Coronavirus” has literally become a word in time.