Fortunately, I’m not paid to boil this chaotic, eventful year down to a one-word description. Unfortunately, the folks at Oxford Languages — the awarders of the famous “Word of the Year” nomination — are. That’s no easy task.
In a normal year, the Oxford English Dictionary would announce its winner around now. It usually captures the year’s trends or news — in 2018, it was “toxic”; in 2013, it was “selfie.” This year, Oxford bucked tradition and released its “Words of an Unprecedented Year” (emphasis on the “s”). The list contains 40-something words, everything from “superspreader” to “mail-in” to “Blursday” (defined as “a day of the week that is indistinguishable from any other”).
In 2020, an exception is understandable. Nothing about this year has been normal. It’s worth noting, too, that each word on the list could make a strong case to be the sole word-winner. “Blended learning”? Parents would concur. “Infodemic”? Definitely. “Systemic racism“? Absolutely. And, a new addition to the dictionary, “Covidiot” (one who disobeys COVID-19 public health guidelines)? Sure.
But each of those, on its own, fails to encapsulate the year in its entirety. Medical lingo overlooks social unrest. Political terms forget the pandemic. Only ambiguous, sweeping adjectives like “unprecedented” cover all the bases — and still seem to fall short. Perhaps 2020 is truly undefinable — and how it will define us going forward is a better focus than how we define it.
Even so, Oxford has a job to do, and a list is thus understandable. But in no way is the 48-word tally exhaustive. I thought of several other omissions that easily could’ve been included. “Unprecedented” seems like the obvious adjective to describe most notable events of the last 11 months. “Stimulus” and “sustainability” rank up there, as well. “Essential” and “progress” have taken on new magnitudes. (An empirical observation of 2020’s effect on our priorities: This year, the most statistically significant noun modified by “essential” has been “worker”; in 2019, it was “oils.”)
Study and struggle as you may, it’s very, very hard to describe 2020 in one word or phrase alone. The world we live in has changed, and the language we speak has, too. No amount of words can adequately encapsulate those changes. “I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had,” Casper Grathwol, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, told BBC. “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.”
Perhaps 2020 is truly undefinable — and how it will define us going forward is a better focus than how we define it.
New words, new phrases, new “normal” — 2020’s had it all. That may not be a bad thing. How, then, do we define 2020, if no one word describes it?
J.M. Berger, in an article for The Atlantic last month, might have an idea. “We will remember 2020 as many things,” he wrote. “The year we spent alone. The year we spent online. The year so many died. The year of protests. The year of QAnon. The year of domestic terrorism. The year of the election.”
Lest any overzealous reader uses Berger’s list as a foundation to write their own version of Oxford’s Word(s) of the Year, he offers a caveat: “Most of all, perhaps, it is the year of not knowing. Is it safe to send my kids to school? Can I go to the store? Should I vote by mail? Do I still have a job? Is it safe to go to work? Can I afford to stay home? Is it safe to exercise? To fly? Do I still have to wipe down the mail? The groceries? What does the CDC say about that? Can I trust the CDC anymore?”
In a year of uncertainty, not knowing might be the lone constant. 2020 is, in large part, undefinable — and that’s OK. Though the year cannot be described by one word, it can be defined by what we learn from it and how it shapes us moving forward.
Only a month remains in 2020. The problems and practices of this year will likely carry into the future nonetheless. What has 2020 taught that will aid us moving forward? Better than defining this year — how will we allow this year to define us?
No single word can explain that.