It’s only the beginning of April, so it is a little premature to decide on what will be crowned the word of the year this year. But it is a raging certainty that whatever global dictionary makers decide on, it will have something to do with Coronavirus.
The words which have now become everyday to us fall into two distinct categories – those which previously existed, but we rarely used, and those which are new and have been spawned by the current pandemic.
Coronavirus itself falls into the former category. Coronavirus as a catch-all term for a group of viruses, including the common cold, is technically the correct definition, but the ongoing outbreak has meant that Coronavirus is now being used as the term for this specific illness, and will be for all time. While people are familiar with the new term Covid-19, the official word for the disease caused by this particular coronavirus, we are living through the time of The Coronavirus and nuances of meaning around future coronaviruses are linguistic challenges for another day.
Other two key terms which have gone from nowhere straight into daily usage are Self-isolation, Social Distancing and Lockdown. Any could legitimately emerge at the end of the year as the term which has defined 2020. Allied to that is the word Virtual, which was much more common before this outbreak but is now appearing as a prefix to almost anything you can think of to describe a previous physical activity now being delivered by electronic means. Virtual reality no longer seems so virtual, and a revision of the word virtual at the end of all this to recognise its ubiquity may be upon us.
The key to much of this virtuality has been the technical tools available, and Zoom is a brand that is new to most people. It has currently gone clear of the pack in terms of being the online meeting tool which most people are relying on. However, the rise of Zoom has also spawned one of the best brand new words of recent times, Zoombombing, which is the practice of people hacking into online meetings hosted on Zoom to disrupt them, often with sinister overtones. Zoom have responded by making some urgent changes to their platform, so it will be interesting to see if Zoombombing becomes a historical word almost as quickly as it emerged.
The new word which will doubtless hang around longer is Covidiot, the term coined to describe anyone doing stupid things during the current outbreak, be that stockpiling toilet paper or ignoring official guidance over how to behave to avoid spreading the disease. Urban Dictionary is credited by many as the origin of the word, and it certainly looks like one which will not go away any time soon.
Any one of the words above could emerge as the defining word of the year. But wouldn’t it be great if it was none of them? Wouldn’t it be something if vaccine or cure could suddenly rise up as the key description of this year? Or something about how togetherness and community spirit end up as the enduring spirit of 2020? Optimistic I know in the current climate, but with plenty of people saying that they hope that the world that emerges from the pandemic is better than the one that went into it, then we may find that the most popular words over the next few months reflect a renewed sense of hope.