The American-Canadian linguist, K. David Harrison, writes that the “mind has no end”, while the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein opined that, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
It is my submission that this year has given new life to these two statements. On the lighter side, creative minds have already suggested that 2020 should be the term for everything that goes wrong.
The speed at which new words and terms have emerged to become part of everyday conversations is breathtaking. While today’s world is built around fast-moving and networked arrangements, dictionaries still took pride in being fastidious and exacting when it comes to the study and adoption of new words and terms.
The editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, Peter Sokolowski, says that, “we have a kind of reflex to wait. We want to make sure that the word has staying power; that it’s going to be around for a long time. Normally, it’s more like a conveyor belt that takes, on average, a number of years to go from being noticed to being added to the dictionary.”
This year, dictionaries have gathered speed and sought quicker responses to changes in lexicon. Experts say that dictionaries have shown a rare nimbleness in order to keep up with additions arising from the language of the Covid-19 pandemic, remote working, and the attendant social and economic changes.
The online dictionary, Dictionary.com, is reported to have updated fifteen thousand entries while adding six hundred and fifty brand new terms. On its part, the Collins dictionary named “lockdown” as its word of the year.
Deviating from a tradition of releasing updates in March, June, September and December, the Oxford dictionary has varied the frequency in order “to show the impact of the pandemic on the English language”.
The Oxford English dictionary note that it is clear that, “2020 is not a year that could be neatly accommodated in one single word of the year.” Hence it has “lockdown, shelter-in-place, essential workers, facemasks, and bubbles or pods”, among the words whose usage grew significantly.
It registered two hundred and fifty thousand usages of “lockdown” this year compared to four thousand hits last year. The use of words like “remote, remotely, on mute, unmute and conspiracy theory” also grew.
“Quarantine, lockdown and pandemic” topped the Cambridge dictionary list. Earlier in the year, Merriam-Webster undertook what was described as an “unscheduled update” in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Its update included “community spread, contact tracing, contactless, herd immunity, index or zero patient, intensivist, physical distancing, pre-symptomatic, super-spreader, self-quarantine, hand hygiene and WFH”.
In a succinct yet instructive comment, the senior vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor, Roger Baker, has said that, “words do matter, both for communication and for taking responsibility, or assigning blame.”
With epoch-defining economic, social and geopolitical consequences, the Covid-19 pandemic has imprinted change as the dominant theme of the year. I have previously followed discussions, which defined the pandemic as a black swan event. If accepted, this term by economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb means that the pandemic is not only abnormal, but was also difficult to predict. However, the policy analyst, Michele Wucker, prefers to call the pandemic a “gray rhino” occurrence. She writes that, “unlike the black swan that appears only in hindsight, gray rhino is forward-looking. It is actively seeing what’s in front of us and challenging ourselves to act.”
In light of the badly exposed inequalities in the world, financial instabilities, severely lacking health systems and social safety nets, gray rhino wins the week. Besides the deluge of information, the pandemic has clearly foregrounded the need for efficient and effective systems of governance and distribution.