A banner year for the English lexicon

Thom hopes 2021 will not yield such a bevy of new terms and phrases

For Your Consideration

For Your Consideration

Who would have ever thought Pfizer would be more famous for a vaccine than its flagship little blue pill?

But, that’s just the kind of year 2020 has been.

In fact the name of the pharmaceutical giant became so embedded in the public imagination, it rightfully found its place on many shortlists for word of the year.

Ultimately, though, both Merriam-Webster (MW) and Dictionary.com chose pandemic as their word of the year, which should come as no surprise to most people.

Both dictionaries said searches for the word spiked on March 11 by 115,000 per cent for MW and 13,000 per cent for Dictionary.com and remained heavily looked-up throughout the year.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), on the other hand, based its decision not on sheer usage volume, but on its editors’ analysis of what captured the “ethos, mood or preoccupations” of the year.

In so doing, they were unable to settle on one word or phrase that captured that zeitgeist and instead published a list of “Words of an Unprecedented Year.”

Oddly enough, unprecedented, the overuse of which this year was, well, unprecedented, did not make the Oxford list. It was Dictionary.com’s people’s choice winner, however.

The full Oxford list includes 48 words, phrases and neologisms (newly-coined words or expressions).

Among these are the obvious ones related to the primary preoccupation of 2020: pandemic (and plandemic for the conspiracy enthusiasts), COVID-19, coronavirus, social distancing, bubble, PPE, self-isolate, anti-masker, flatten the curve, self-isolate and lockdown.

There are also a number related to the other significant preoccupation of 2020: Black Lives Matter, allyship, decolonize, defund, Juneteenth, systemic racism and take a knee.

In the arguably clever department, Oxford lists: anthropause (slowdown of travel and other human activities), covidiot, blursday (a day of the week indistinguishable from any other), doomscrolling (compulsively scrolling through bad news social media threads), twindemic (two simultaneous pandemics) and Zoombombing (crashing a Zoom conference).

Oxford also included three neologisms that made my list of my most hated phrases of 2020: cancel culture, wokeness and virtue signalling.

The thing that bothers me about these terms is their pejorative use as an ad hominem attack against people with opposing views.

Cancel culture, defined as “a culture in which there is a widespread practice of publicly rejecting or withdrawing support from people or things regarded as promoting socially unacceptable views.” In other words, every human culture throughout history. The only thing that changes is what is regarded as socially unacceptable.

Are we supposed to publicly accept and support socially unacceptable views?

Wokeness is the “quality of being alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice.”

This is supposed to be a bad thing?

Are there people who take it too far? Of course, just as there are people who take it too far in the other direction wanting to return to a culture of persecution of minority groups.

Virtue signalling, defined as “the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue,” is the most troublesome.

It suggests people who genuinely hold certain attitudes are, in fact, disingenuous.

Some, may in fact be disingenuous, but the ubiquitous use of this term every time someone you disagree with opens their mouth does nothing but deteriorate civil discourse.

We should give honourable mention to a couple of made-in Canada phrases that did not make any of the major lists.

There was, of course, our prime minister’s infamous quote “speaking moistly” said during one of his daily press briefings talking about mask-wearing. It became butt of a million jokes and memes and went on to become a YouTube hit when YouTube user “anonymotif” autotuned Justin Trudeau’s voice over a retro synth-pop dance track.

Finally, how could we forget B.C.’s own Dr. Bonnie Henry’s daily reminder to “be kind, be calm, be safe.”

It was indeed a banner year for the English lexicon.

While I am admittedly a word nerd, I really hope 2021 is not.

Happy New Year.