Toward the end of the year we can expect to see several dictionary editors’ picks for their words of the year. These carefully selected words are intended to reflect important aspects or events of the previous 12 months, and they’re usually right on the mark. Usually.

But first, let’s take a quick look at how this whole “word of the year” thing came about. Following the German tradition of naming a “Wort des Jahres” starting in 1971, members of the American Dialect Society began voting on their selection for an English word of the year (also known as “WotY”) in 1990. Within a few years, all of the major English-language dictionaries were following suit, each choosing their own word of the year.

And then 2020 happened. Even though it was nearly impossible to select just one word to epitomize what was going on in the world at the time, most of the dictionaries made a concerted effort. Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com agreed on “pandemic” (a disease that’s prevalent over a whole country or the world) as the appropriate word.

Collins went for “lockdown” as their 2020 word, while the Cambridge Dictionary editors favored “quarantine,” and the American Dialect Society went with simply “COVID” (an acronym that stands for “coronavirus disease”).

So who can blame the editors of the Oxford Dictionary for (probably) throwing up their hands and declaring, “How can we possibly settle on a single word that best represents this crazy year?” So they didn’t.

Instead they settled on a whole bunch of words that were chosen “to reflect 2020’s ethos, mood or preoccupations.” They called their collection “Words of an Unprecedented Year,” noting that it was “a little ironic — in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other.”

Advertisement

The Oxford editors came up with so many words, in fact, that they needed to group them into categories, the first one, naturally, having to do with all things coronavirus. This collection of course included the word “coronavirus” (which has been used by scientists since the 1960s), and whose usage exceeded even that of the word “time.”

Feb. 12, 2020, saw the first use of the neologism “COVID,” a word that quickly overtook the usage enjoyed by “coronavirus” and influenced the Oxford editors’ selection of words and terms such as: “shelter in place,” “support bubbles,” “superspreader” (which has been in use since the 1970s) and “pandemic,” whose usage is said to have increased 57,000%.

Some of the pandemic-related words highlighted in Oxford’s “Technology” section included: “remotely,” “staycation” and “mute/unmute,” while the “Environment” section yielded “anthropause,” which is the decrease in air, noise and light pollution due to the global slowdown of travel during the pandemic.

Thankfully, the Oxford editors gave us a break from all their words of the year focused on COVID-19 by also offering sections on social issues and politics. While they did include pandemic-related “social distancing,” thanks to good old American politics the editors also offered up “impeachment,” “acquittal,” “cancel culture,” “mail-in,” “conspiracy theory” and “QAnon.”

The following year, English dictionary editors’ 2021 WotYs were less concerned about COVID. While Merriam-Webster included “vaccine” and Oxford had “vax,” the various editors also selected several non-pandemic words, including “NFT” or “non-fungible token,” which is a chunk of digital data that can be art, music, a photo, a video game, software, anything really, in digital format that is unique and, like a work of art, can be owned, bought and sold by an individual.

Other words of 2021 selected by dictionary editors included “allyship,” which describes actively working with others to promote inclusion of marginalized people, and “perseverance,” a word that captured the will of the people around the world to never give up, as well as being the name of NASA’s Mars rover

All this WotY stuff has started me wondering which words will be selected to represent the current year. Maybe “top secret,” or “Mar-a-Lago,” or “wildfires,” or how about “Ukraine?” Stay tuned.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: