The following is a guest post by Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. He is also the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a contributing writer to The Atlantic.
While the American Dialect Society has chosen a Word of the Year for three decades now, this year’s selection was—to use a popular word these days—unprecedented. Like so much else in 2020, the deliberations were moved online, and in the first-ever virtual vote, held on Thursday, Dec. 17, the winner of the Word of the Year honors was Covid. It was a highly appropriate choice, given how Covid—short for COVID-19, the name given by the World Health Organization for the disease caused by novel coronavirus—has become a stand-in for the pandemic and all the ways it has shaped our lives.
The ADS first picked a Word of the Year, or WOTY as it’s known to its friends, at its annual meeting in December 1990, after the society’s long-time executive secretary Allan Metcalf proposed making a selection modeled on Time’s “Person of the Year.” For the first time since then, the ADS was unable to meet in person for its conference, and so plans were made to turn WOTY into a virtual event that would be open to all who wanted to participate. Ultimately, more than three hundred attendees joined a Zoom webinar, where they actively participated in the discussion and cast their votes.
As the sponsor of the event, Duke University Press was essential in making the virtual WOTY a reality. The Press has had a longstanding relationship with the ADS as the publisher of the society’s quarterly journal American Speech. As part of my duties as chair of the New Words Committee, I oversee “Among the New Words” in American Speech, a feature that has run in the journal since 1941. When I took on the role in 2011, I reflected on the history of “Among the New Words” in a post on this blog, and the eighty-year tradition continues in the forthcoming Feb. 2021 issue of American Speech. The next installment, which will debut a new format for the feature, is co-authored by Charles E. Carson, managing editor for American Speech, and Kelly E. Wright, a doctoral student in sociolinguistics at the University of Michigan. Word of the Year nominees always provide fertile ground for the neologisms covered in “Among the New Words.”
When the ADS made the decision over the summer to cancel its annual meeting, which was scheduled to be held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America in early January 2021, that opened up the possibility of holding the WOTY vote as a free-standing event. In devising plans with ADS executive director Julie Roberts of the University of Vermont, we hit upon the idea of live-streaming WOTY and moving the date up to December. As part of the registration process, we fielded nominations for words that people wanted to see in contention. Duke University Press graciously offered to sponsor the proceedings and hosted the webinar on Zoom. The live-stream went off without a hitch, as hundreds of participants were able to join in a lively debate over which words should be recognized as best capturing the zeitgeist of 2020.
In the overall WOTY category, Covid won out over such nominees as social distancing, unprecedented, pandemic, and even 2020, which has become its own lexical item to sum up all the feelings inspired by this particularly chaotic year. Additionally, votes were made in ten other secondary categories. These included the Digital Word of the Year (doomscrolling, for the obsessive practice of scanning social media and websites for bad news), Most Useful (Before Times, for the time before the beginning of the pandemic), and Most Likely to Succeed (antiracism, the practice of actively working to prevent or combat racism).
There was no shortage of creativity in the nominated words. My personal favorites included oysgezoomt, a word formed in Yiddish that means “Zoomed out” or fatigued from exposure to Zoom, and Blursday, a useful term for when you don’t quite know what day of the week it is (a common affliction in the pandemic era). Despite—or perhaps because of—the hardships of the past year, it was a vibrant time for the creation of new words, especially in the arena of what I’ve called “coronacoinages.” While Covid, a word that was unknown to anyone a year ago, may best encompass what we have collectively gone through in 2020, it represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the pandemic has transformed the lexicon. The diverse set of nominated words provides ample evidence for this flurry of linguistic activity in a year like no other.
The 2020 Word of the Year nominees will be considered in a future installment of “Among the New Words” in the Duke University Press journal American Speech. In the meantime, you can peruse the full list of nominated words in the press release on the results of the WOTY voting. Additionally, the entire live-stream has been archived on the American Dialect Society’s YouTube channel.