In 2018, the Oxford dictionary chose “toxic” — as in “toxic masculinity”, particularly relevant in the light of #MeToo — as its new “word of the year”. Last year, “climate emergency” made the cut. Since then, in the seemingly interminable time the earth is taking to traverse an elliptical path around the sun, a pandemic has struck and work, love, friendship, societies and economies have been fundamentally altered. So much so that even for a dictionary, a word is not enough.
Earlier this week, the Oxford English Dictionary declared that it has not chosen a word for 2020 because this is “a year which cannot neatly be accommodated in one single word”. Instead, a number of new additions to the global English lexicon have found mention, including “coronavirus”, “mail in”, “unmute” and, of course, “lockdown”. With the flurry of words, though, what the good people at the Oxford dictionary’s office are really saying is this: 2020 has left them speechless. Every year, the word they choose indicates a trend, a new usage that distills a debate. In COVID-19 times, it would appear that language, the root of all identity, is as flummoxed as those who use it. Are we digital creatures now, who “unmute” ourselves while working from home for a brief spell of social contact? Is democracy and politics going to be an armchair affair, and voting challenged for the new forms it has taken? And what of old words which have acquired new, devastating overtones — the “migrant” has become infused with new meaning in India, as millions journeyed on foot.
There is, however, a silver lining in this speaking silence. Scientific terms have entered everyday language like never before, and across the board, new words are emerging at an unprecedented pace. Perhaps in a year that the world stood still, people managed to collectively expand their minds.