May I have a word, please?
For the most part, chatter about language comes at the end of the year, when dictionaries in the US and UK release their Word of the Year. It was Selfie in 2013, when front-facing cellphone cameras were getting popular. In 2015, the Tears of Joy emoji outstripped actual words to fill the spot. Last year’s word, They, marked a dismantling of gender binaries in favour of neutral pronouns.
We’re only halfway through 2020 and already it’s changed how we speak. It’s pushed the US-based Merriam-Webster Dictionary to make its fastest update in history. New words usually take hold over a couple of years before dictionaries consider them a legitimate addition to the lexicon. One word took just a month. The World Health Organization coined it on February 11. But it spread across the globe so fast that by March 18, Covid-19, a mash-up of coronavirus disease 2019, was inducted into the online dictionary.
Several new pandemic-related terms are part of the Oxford English Dictionary update: ‘social distancing’, ‘contact tracing’, ‘WFH’, ‘community spread’, ‘contactless’ and ‘self-isolate’. Merriam-Webster is considering adding ‘doomscrolling’ and ‘doomsurfing’. The former debuted on Twitter in 2018; the latter appeared in a New York Times column only this March. But both record our fascination with seeking out and scrolling through news that is disastrous.
There’s been plenty of that this year, and it’s changing language too. The Black Lives Matter protests that started in the US and spread around the world, compelled us to re-examine racism. In America, a young university graduate emailed the Merriam-Webster editors, pointing out that their definition of the term ‘racism’ was inadequate. The explanations should include ongoing systemic oppression, she said. The editors have agreed – a revision is in the works. We’ll have an extended definition in the dictionary soon.
In newsrooms, the change is subtle, but powerful. The Associated Press will join other news companies in capitalising Black when referring to the race, ethnicity or culture.
In pop-culture, commentators have long pointed out that TV shows and movies paint law enforcers as shining heroes, ignoring the brutal reality. They’re popularising the term ‘copaganda’ to draw attention to this repeated misrepresentation of the truth.
Meanwhile, the North American Scrabble Players Association is pulling 238 words that might be considered racist or sexist slurs, from its masterlist of words permissible in club and tournament play. The list includes ‘bitch’, ‘culchie’ (a disparaging term meaning ‘unsophisticated peasant’) and the N word.
Closer home, the decision to drop the Fair from Fair & Lovely skin lightening creams is part of a global cosmetic change. Eskimo Pie ice-cream, Redskins lollies, Chicos sweets, Uncle Ben’s rice, Aunt Jemima syrups, Beso de Negra cookies and Darlie toothpaste are all re-branding. No derogatory terms, no subservient Black mascots. No racial stereotyping for profit.
What will 2020’s Word of the Year be? My bet’s on ‘The New Normal’.
Over the moon about something that’s still under the radar? Tell me at firstname.lastname@example.org