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Coronavirus Affected Everything — Including The Words Of 2020

DON GONYEA, HOST:

And finally today, the coronavirus has affected nearly every aspect of our lives this year, including our language. Every year for the past 30 years, the American Dialect Society has selected a word of the year. And this year - no surprise - it was COVID.

But beyond that one, single word that has ruled our lives, the pandemic has also spawned other words and phrases, like the before times. For more on the words of 2020, we're joined by Ben Zimmer. He's the chair of the American Dialect Society's New Words Committee, and he's the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

Ben Zimmer, welcome.

BEN ZIMMER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

GONYEA: So this is one of those stories that we always look forward to at year's end - a chance to take stock of our language and how it evolves in the short term. It's also generally one of those kind of fun year-end traditions. But this year I was, like, oh, boy. I don't know if I even want to go there.

ZIMMER: Well, it's certainly been a year like no other, and that's been true for language developments as well. You know, as someone who's a word watcher, this has been a crazy year. I mean, obviously, as soon as the pandemic hit and people were under lockdown starting in March or so, people had to come up with new words and phrases to describe what they were going through.

And often, these were very creative and innovative words that people came up with. But it was like we needed a whole new vocabulary just to talk about what we were all going through and the experiences we were sharing.

GONYEA: So before we discussed the winning word, give us some of your favorite nominees - those that didn't win.

ZIMMER: Well, you know, we have an overall word of the year for the American Dialect Society. We, you know, voted virtually this year in a number of different categories in addition to the overall word of the year. So there were some interesting choices that won other categories.

So, for instance, digital word of the year - that was won by doomscrolling (ph), something that we're all probably familiar with - how we obsess over bad news, just scanning social media and websites. Doomscrolling kind of sums up a lot of experiences for people this year. But by the end of the year, people were looking for something more hopeful, and so people were coming up with positive versions of doomscrolling like gleethreshing (ph) as something you could do where you're actually, you know, reading some good news for a change.

In the most useful category, before times won. And that's very useful because once we were plunged into this pandemic era, it felt like we were living in some sort of dystopian science fiction narrative. And so it became appropriate to talk about, oh, do you remember the before times? And we're living in the now times, and we're hoping to live in the after times. And so, you know, it was just a way that people were being playful with language.

There was also a lot of creativity involving Zoom, for instance. And so one of my favorites was a Yiddish expression, oysgezoomt (ph), which means you're Zoomed out. You're fatigued by being overexposed to Zoom.

GONYEA: So let's talk about that winning word, COVID. Was there much debate? Or you said there's a vote. Was it just overwhelming, no contest?

ZIMMER: There was a lot of lively discussion over what should be the word of the year. There were many very interesting nominees. COVID ultimately won, but there were a lot of good contenders. I mean, something like social distancing, actually - you know, before we had the vote, I would have guessed social distancing might have won, that if I had to bet on one particular choice, that might have been, you know, my favorite.

But, you know, social distancing did well in the voting, as did some other words, like unprecedented, for instance. Even 2020, the name of the year, got a lot of votes because people were pointing out that the name of the year was becoming like a word used to sum up all the chaotic feelings inspired by the year's events. But COVID ultimately won out after a great deal of debate and discussion.

GONYEA: Language didn't stop inventing new words and new phrases apart from COVID as well. What about words that you looked at this year that had nothing whatsoever to do with the pandemic?

ZIMMER: Yeah, there were stories this year besides COVID, like the presidential election and also the Black Lives Matter protests. And there were some terms - important terms that came out of came out of that as well. So, for instance, in our most likely to succeed category, anti-racism was voted as the top one in that category. And that's the practice of actively working to prevent or combat racism. You know, anti-racism was a word on many people's lips, particularly with the George Floyd protests this year and all the discussion about race that followed after that.

We also see another term related to race, BIPAC - an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color - which was a bit of a contentious term this year in terms of being what's intended to be an inclusive term beyond just people of color. But there was a lot of discussion among scholars of color over whether this acronym, BIPAC, was something that, you know, should continue to be used. It has its proponents. It has its detractors. It's interesting to see how terms like that can become very contentious and heavily debated. But that all is part of what made 2020 2020.

In terms of the presidential election, we saw some new terms coming up just while the election returns were coming in. So we had the red mirage followed by the blue shift as we saw that voting was skewing towards Republicans early on before more Democratic-leaning votes were counted because of the early vote coming in. And so we had the terms red and blue before to refer to Republican and Democratic, you know, leaning voters. But now those terms became used in a new way.

GONYEA: So I have a confession. I am already looking ahead to next year's list. I am hoping the winner is something like family gathering or (laughter) reunions. Can you work on that?

ZIMMER: I wish I could make that happen. I would certainly love to see those more hopeful words be characterizing 2021. I mean, after a year of social distancing, replacing that with social gatherings would be wonderful. And we may need a whole new lexicon to describe that phenomenon once we are able to experience it again.

GONYEA: We are talking to Ben Zimmer. He's the chair of the American Dialect Society's New Words Committee, and he is a language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

Ben Zimmer, thank you for joining us, and happy New Year.

ZIMMER: Thank you. It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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