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Open Dictionary Word of the Year 2020

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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

Macmillan Dictionary’s crowdsourced Open Dictionary is a fantastic resource. Consisting of lightly edited entries submitted by users all around the world and published weekly, it allows us to keep our finger on the pulse of language change almost in real time. Since the Open Dictionary was launched in 2009, many thousands of words and phrases have been added to it. About half of these have been promoted to become full entries in Macmillan Dictionary as part of our regular updates.

2020 has been an extraordinary year in many ways, and one of the outcomes of this has been an explosion of new words and expressions, many of them connected with the global pandemic. Almost 1300 new entries in the Open Dictionary were approved over the year – let’s take a look at a few of them.

January now seems like a different world. Covid was a distant threat that was widely expected to recede as SARS had, almost 2 decades earlier. A few medical terms appeared in the OD, but they were things like staphylococcus and ventricular. The climate crisis remained a focus, with entries for flight shame and climate-neutral.

In February COVID-19 made its appearance, in an entry submitted in the middle of the month. This term was soon simplified to ‘Covid’, as people decided that typing the name in upper case with a hyphen and a number on the end was too tiresome. COVID-19 was joined in March by the official name of the disease, SARS-CoV-2, and coronavirus, used by many to refer to the new disease rather than, as previously, the class of viruses it belongs to. In late March came ‘the rona‘, a sign that the name of the disease was already being subjected to linguistic playfulness and creativity. March also gave us entries for concepts like R0 or reproduction number, while in the UK and elsewhere social distancing became the norm, except for covidiots who refused to accept the seriousness of the disease.

As more societies locked down, we became familiar with terms like iso, short for ‘isolation’, and self-iso (originally from Australia), while the term furlough, previously associated mainly with the armed forces, gained new relevance and resonance. People in the UK also became familiar with the American expression shelter in place. Stuck at home, people turned to video-conferencing apps to facilitate work and leisure; Zoom in particular spawned a lexicon of its own, swiftly becoming a verb as well as creating a whole new way of dressing. The quarantini was revived, along with a new way of getting through the days and weeks, the furlough merlot.

Old words acquired new meanings as a glorious spring turned to early summer: a bubble came to mean a geographical area or social group within which people were allowed to mingle freely, while to shield was to avoid all contact with others because of the dangers infection might present. People’s reactions to living through a pandemic also generated creative new terms such as coronacoaster and doomscrolling. Not all these terms were new, however: when it emerged that the Prime Minister’s most powerful adviser had broken nationwide restrictions on travel to relocate with his wife and son almost 300 miles away from their home in London, the old-fashioned phrase ‘lie doggo‘ emerged blinking into the light of the 21st century.

Moving swiftly on, the arrival of summer saw a decline in cases and deaths, leading to an easing of restrictions around the globe, but no decline in what we should probably call coronavocabulary (not in the Open Dictionary, though maybe it should be). Long covid emerged as doctors realized that even those who initially experienced mild symptoms could continue to be unwell for a very long time. Tiers acquired a new significance, as did firebreaks and circuit breakers. And there was no let-up either in the non-pandemic-related contributions sent in by our wonderful users. You can browse them by simply going to the Open Dictionary page and clicking ‘Browse all entries’.

So what is the Open Dictionary Word of the Year for this 2020? After careful consideration I think it has to be lockdown, a word that came to us from American English but in 2020 has acquired a new meaning that will surely resonate with those who experienced it for the rest of their lives. What’s your word of the year? You can tell us in the Comment box below.


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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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