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How Covid-19 is Shaping Language (Part 2)

I recently wrote about Collins Dictionary naming ‘lockdown’ as the word of the year (click here). Not to be beaten, Oxford English Dictionary (OED) have just revealed that they can’t reduce 2020 to a single word, and for the first time have not chosen a single word of the year. Having said that, they mention many of the same words as Collins, including coronavirus (which they note was quickly overtaken by Covid-19, presumably because it’s shorter), lockdown, and key workers.

More interestingly, they comment on “seismic shifts” in use of language and number of new words being used frequently. They also point out the remarkable rise in the use of scientific terms in general discourse. Who would have guessed that we would all be familiar with R number, flatten the curve, and community transmission? The use of the phrase ‘following the science’ has increased by more than 1,000% compared with 2019, and shifts in working habits have also led to new words entering the language such as workation, staycation, remote, and unmute.

This is a good reminder that language is always evolving and changing, and sometimes these changes happen very quickly. Language and word meanings are not fixed, even if we sometimes pretend that they are precise and immutable. The President of OED sums it up nicely, “I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had … It’s both unprecedented and a little ironic – in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other.”

 

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