In normal times Oxford Languages, publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), nominate a single Word Of The Year. These times being far from normal, they have reacted in kind.

Does that mean they can’t choose a winner?

Essentially, yes, though winner isn’t quite le mot juste. The Word Of The Year is meant to denote a new addition to the lexicon which best sums up the zeitgeist but instead of a single word Oxford Languages have chosen a range of words to represent 2020. In a report titled Words Of An Unprecedented Year, they write: “The English language, like all of us, has had to adapt rapidly and repeatedly this year. Given the phenomenal breadth of language change and development during 2020, Oxford Languages concluded that this is a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word.”

It almost sounds exciting ...

It is, at least if you’re a word nerd. The report continues: “In almost real-time, lexicographers were able to monitor and analyse seismic shifts in language data and precipitous frequency rises in new coinages”. One of the most precipitous of these rises in frequency involved the word ‘pandemic’, which has seen a rise in usage of some 57,000 per cent.

So what are the Words Of The Year?

They are several and, unsurprisingly, most of them do relate to the ongoing pandemic. Examples include ‘lockdown’, ‘superspreader’, ‘furlough’ and ‘circuit-breaker’. Other new words identified include ‘doomscrolling’ (the act of scrolling relentlessly through bad news about the pandemic) and ‘Covidiot’ (a person who flouts lockdown rules, for example to go on holiday).

Which terms have been Word Of The Year previously?

Last year it was ‘climate emergency’ – actually two words – and in 2016, the year of Donald Trump’s election to the White House, it was ‘post-truth’. But although committing to tap into the zeitgeist, Oxford Language have thrown out the occasional curveball. In 2012 they awarded the Word Of The Year accolade to ‘omnishambles’, a word invented by the writers of political satire The Thick Of It, and in 2004 to ‘chav’, a controversial word used to describe working class people. In 2015 it wasn’t a word at all but an emoji – the one with the smiling face shedding tears of laughter.

Are there regional variations?

There are, as English is a widely spoken language open to all manner of local and cultural influences. For instance the Australians, with their love of shortening any word to its bare minimum of syllables, have decided that ‘iso’ (an abbreviation for ‘isolation’) is their word of the year.