The English language is a living, breathing, expanding phenomenon. The poet Derek Walcott once remarked, “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: It is the property of the language itself.”
Year after year, new words are coined as time, technology, world events, and fashions dictate—but fads are fickle. If the public interest wanes for a particular trend, or world events are relegated to a foggy past, many associated words will be lost and forgotten. Still, others remain as mainstays to our evolving language and how we use or misuse it. Every three months, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) evaluates the vernacular, adding new words, tenses, and subentries to the language that the dictionary’s lexicographers deem essential.
Usually, the end of the calendar year is when the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary crown their “word of the year,” choosing an especially resonate word, a newish word that captures the zeitgeist, or one that encapsulates the spirit or larger conversations of the year. But 2020 was in many ways a year unlike any other, something the Oxford English Dictionary reflected in its choice to not choose: There is no word of the year for the storied dictionary, which instead released a larger report called “Words of an Unprecedented Year.”
After looking into the data of word lookups, it “became apparent that 2020 is not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single ‘word of the year,’” the dictionary wrote. Most notable, of course, is the coronavirus and its related terms about science, lockdowns, and the new reality of work, school, and isolating. But lookups also revolved around election and rise of a new kind of politic (“conspiracy theory” and “QAnon”) as well as words around nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and racism (“Juneteenth,” “decolonize,” and “allyship”).
Words hold a fascination for all, from what they convey to the feelings and thoughts they evoke. Some may jog memories of incidents or events long past, while others forgotten throughout the years may be wholly new to some. When used correctly, a single word can slice through emotionally fraught situations. Or, when used incorrectly or at the wrong moment, that same word can supercharge an interaction, turning a mundane conversation into a conflagration of sentiment.
Stacker grabbed a handful of newly minted words from the years they were coined, from 1920 to 2020. Their definitions come from the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler site, except for the years 2012–13 and 2017–18. Read on for the words—and the events that may have triggered them—that reached popularity the year you were born.
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