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Doomscrolling On A Staycation? Here Are The OED's 'Words Of An Unprecedented Year'

"Flatten the curve" is one of the many new phrases introduced into the lexicon this year that would've made little sense in 2019.
Al Bello
Getty Images
"Flatten the curve" is one of the many new phrases introduced into the lexicon this year that would've made little sense in 2019.

Just a year ago, a sentence like "I was in self-quarantine so I had nothing to do but doomscroll and found an article about an anti-mask rally that looks like a superspreader event" would've gotten you pinged as a weirdo, but it's completely normal for 2020.

That's why the Oxford English Dictionary — which usually announces a single word of the year — has instead released the Oxford Languages Words of an Unprecedented Yearreport, looking at the many words now in our shared vocabulary.

"The English language is studded with words from previous plagues and pandemics, mass social disruption, and an abundance of expressions that fulfil humanity's perennial need to describe an often inhospitable world," the OED report reads. "Though what was genuinely unprecedented this year was the hyper-speed at which the English-speaking world amassed a new collective vocabulary relating to the coronavirus, and how quickly it became, in many instances, a core part of the language."

The report notes that by April, the word "coronavirus" was more frequently used than the word "time," one of the most frequently used nouns in the English language.

Our vocabulary also reflected how we responded to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as its effects on the economy so words such as "remote," "Zoom-ready" and "furlough" saw a sharp rise in usage.

Not all of the words on the OED list are directly tied to the coronavirus pandemic. "Black Lives Matter," "defund," and "systemic racism" saw a rise this summer, coinciding with the protests over racism and police violence.

Last year's Word of the Year was "climate emergency," but according to the OED, the usage of climate-related terms plummeted earlier this year, and now show signs of ticking back up again slowly.

If language is a living thing, then 2020 qualifies as a growth spurt.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.