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Oxford’s 2020 Word of the Year? Well, It’s Unprecedented

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The Oxford report also highlights words and phrases relating to social justice, including “Black Lives Matter,” “Juneteenth,” “decolonize,” and “allyship,” some of which surged dramatically starting in late May, amid the protests following the killing of George Floyd in police custody. But those increases, while notable, were nowhere near those of pandemic-related terms.

And the pandemic may have actually reduced the frequency of other topical words. Last year, Oxford released an all-climate related short list, topped by “climate emergency.” But in March, as the pandemic took hold, the frequency of the word “climate” itself abruptly plunged by almost 50 percent.

(Usage has since rebounded a bit, and the report also flagged the emergence of some new climate-related terms, like “anthropause,” proposed in an article in the journal Nature in June to describe the sudden drastic reduction in human mobility, and its impact on the natural world.)

The pandemic turned once-obscure public-health terminology like “social distancing” or “flatten the curve” into household terms, and made words and phrases like “lockdown” and “stay-at-home” common. More subtly, it also altered usage patterns for ho-hum words like “remote” and “remotely.”

Previously, the most common collocates (as lexicographers call words that appear most frequently together) of “remote” were “village,” “island” and “control.” This year, Ms. Martin said, they were “learning,” “working” and “work force.”

The Oxford report also highlights increased use of “in-person,” often in retronyms, as lexicographers refer to a new term for an existing thing that distinguishes the original from a new variant. (For example: “land line” or “cloth diaper.”) In 2020, it became increasingly necessary to specify “in-person” voting, learning, worship and so on.



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