2020 defied words, but created plenty of new ones

PHOTO: Prachatai, Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Mesabi Tribune.

Major events alter the way we communicate. New words enter the language when the old ones fail us. You can’t find a better example than what we’ve experienced in 2020.

Language marks changes in lifestyle. For instance, when I leave the house now my wife asks, “Did you remember your face mask?” If you told us a year ago we’d be saying things like this we might have guessed that we became bank robbers. 

Ha! Of course not. This is much less profitable. 

The COVID-19 global pandemic supercharged the phrase, “Now more than ever,” an incantation uttered in political speeches, commercials and even the most mundane work meetings. The problem is that it contains subtext that suggests, “You know that thing you were too lazy to do before, well, you really should think about doing that now.” 

In other words, “now more than ever” means “be yourself, but more so,” which is why the year seems etched by the best and worst of human nature.

High powered hand sanitizer make school buses smell like vodka. Clinics smell like vodka. Bars, however, smell like moth balls. 

It’s been a heck of a year, and language tells the story.

Every year I review the work of the Global Language Monitor, a research company that analyzes online usage of the English language around the world. Last summer the GLM created its 2020 list of fastest-rising words. I regret to inform you that it includes very few surprises.

Number 1? “Covid.” Number 2? “COVID-19.” Nos. 3 and 4? “Coronavirus” and “Corona,” and I don’t mean the beer.

In all the years I’ve written about the GLM’s top words list I’ve never seen the top four words all mean basically the same thing: a terrible virus that changed everything. 

The list includes several other terms related to the pandemic. Number 5 is “face mask,” the aforementioned reality of efforts to reduce the spread of the virus. “Social distancing” clocks in at Number 8, another word that was coined to reflect physical distance to prevent the spread. But “social distancing” also conjured a great deal of emotional distance among families and friends, something that will take time to fix.

Number 11 was “flatten the curve,” which finally made mathematical exponents relevant to a general audience (sorry kids). 

Numbers 12 (“Lockdown”), 15 (“Zoom Meeting”), 16 (“Quarantine”), 19 (“Symptoms”) and 20 (“Outbreak”) all happened because of COVID-19 as well. You might include Number 17 (“Migrants”) as well, though climate change and political instability also helped elevate that word.

Other words drew attention, too. High minded notions like “Progress” (#6) and “Truth” (#7) made the 2020 list, if only because people were debating whether or not they still existed. The important policy of “Sustainability” fell in at a rather mundane Number 10, just behind the more menacing Number 9, “Trade War.”

“Donald Trump” was the only name to enter the Top 20, well ahead of the eventual winner of the 2020 U.S. Presidential race, Joe Biden, who was way down at #34. President Trump is the first U.S. leader I’m aware of that endeavored to make every single news story about himself, so he was bound to score well here. His days in the spotlight approach an end, however. 

The GLM list was compiled at mid-year, so the seismic events surrounding the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests around the country were only partially considered in the analysis. But it’s still telling that such an important event only made a minor dent in the language spoken around the world.

The year 2021 lies ahead of us. Perhaps we could think of it as a blank slate. But more likely it will be just the first year of an era shaped by the tremendous impact caused by COVID-19 and our collective reactions to rapid change and rising uncertainly in our lives.

Language is a two-way street. People create the words, but then the words shape how people think. New thinking requires new words. 

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



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