There is no word of the year

As word of the year season has gathered pace, it is clear there is no consensus over which individual word should be chosen to represent the year which is, thankfully, nearly behind us.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Collins Dictionary choosing Lockdown to sum up 2020, but since then and Merriam-Webster have both selected Pandemic, while the Macquarie dictionary went for Doomscrolling, with Rona taking its Covid category.

It was always going to be difficult to choose a single word to define the year, so Oxford Dictionaries didn’t bother, instead selecting a panoply of different words and phrases as they felt that one single word could not sum up the year adequately. Their detailed report on the language of the year is a fascinating read, and when we look back on 2020, how certain new terms became everyday utterances for us will be one of the key things we remember.

But I did find myself wondering whether the Oxford approach was quite right. Though it is true that multiple words and phrases have gone from nowhere to become everyday, when I considered what my own word of the year might be, before any nominations came in, I was veering towards pandemic or coronavirus as the umbrella word, the word which precipitated all the others. One word to rule them all.

So it was interesting to see the data from the Global Language Monitor, which pulls together detailed analysis of global usage to see which words are used the most. And so it was no surprise that in terms of words used, Covid-19, Covid and Coronavirus were the most used, with other words tracking slightly behind. In fact, the data showed that only Work at Home and WHO were terms that were used more than these three, though MAGA sneaked into the top five to reflect the US Election.

I think what the above shows is that when we look back on 2020, words like Covid-19 and pandemic will be the ones which come to mind first, which cements to me that they are probably the words of the year above all the others, but the sheer volume of others words now in circulation means that all of those other terms need to be cited as well as a description of the year.

When I speculated on words of the year back in April, I said that it would be great if vaccine emerged instead of the other obvious contenders to sum up the year. That hasn’t happened, quite. But I like to think we can be optimistic that words like vaccine, recovery and party will be the word of the year nominations next year, and that the words which have formed our new normal this year can return to obscurity over the next 12 months.

I Heart The Word of the Year

If you need any more proof that the very fabric of the English language is changing then I give you the Global Language Monitor as Exhibit A. More specifically, I give you the announcement of its word of the year. Triumphant this year is the ❤ emoji.

It’s not even a word, I hear you cry. Au contraire. If we take a word to be a discrete unit of meaning, which when used by one person is understood by another, then any emoticon clearly fits the bill. And while like letters they are symbols, in terms of usage they are words because they express an idea and a meaning, and sometimes a quite complex and subtle meaning, providing context and commentary on what is being written in a very neat and efficient manner. They have become one of the ultimate shorthands in informal, and sometimes even formal, communication, and I even now hear ‘heart’ in spoken situations, where it seems to mean something distinct from like or even love, a slightly more trivial affection.

So what does all this mean for our beloved language. Well basically, its evolution gathers pace. In the past I have written about how technology is changing grammar and even parts of speech. Now it is influencing the symbols themselves that we use to write with, so that our basic alphabet is now expanding and taking on new characters.

Does this mean we are all going to start writing in pictures and will now express ourselves solely with smiley faces and pictures of foaming mugs of beer? No, undoubtedly not.

But as technology increasingly influences the way language is used, and English continues to proliferate as a lingua franca across the globe, emoticons and symbols will increasingly break down language barriers and become part of a universal language of the future. So for the fans of Esperanto, :(.