Aussie Life

Language notes

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

Word-of-the-year of the Year

It’s that time of year once again – the season when dictionaries announce their choice for the Word of the Year. The concept was invented by the American Dialect Society back in January 1991 at their annual gathering of linguists and lexicographers. It was quickly picked up by dictionaries as an opportunity to promote their otherwise hard-to-promote products.

First cab off the rank this year was Collins Dictionaries announcing ‘lockdown’ as their Word of The Year for 2020. A good choice given that since 1971 ‘lockdown’ has been used almost exclusively of prisons. When there is a riot or a knife attack the whole prison is put into ‘lockdown’ (meaning prisoners confined to their cells). This tells us that when premiers ‘lockdown’ their population they are, linguistically, treating people not as citizens but as prisoners (under house arrest rather than in a six foot by six foot cell, but prisoners none the less).

The ANU-based Australian National Dictionary Centre (source of the Australian Oxford dictionaries) then announced that ‘iso’ was their Word of The Year for 2020. This is an abbreviation of ‘isolation’ so it’s yet another Covid word. Australians are world champions at abbreviating words. We turn breakfast into ‘breakkie’, barbecue into ‘barbie’, the postman into the ‘postie’, afternoons into ‘arvo’ and some 5,000 others. So ‘iso’ is a very Aussie reaction to the pandemic. It also lends itself to combinations. The bloke who takes up baking during lockdown can recommend the therapeutic value of ‘iso baking’ to his mates.

The Macquarie Dictionary’s expert panel chose not one but two words of the year. The first is ‘doomscrolling’ meaning the act of consuming an endless procession of negative online news. I find this an odd choice. First because it’s not new – the earliest citation so far discovered for ‘doomscrolling’ is from October 2018 (on Twitter). And second because although many people may have done this since January, it’s not a word that has appeared much in the media.


Macquarie’s second chosen Covid word of the year is ‘rona’ – a classically Australian shortening of ‘coronavirus.’ So the two Australia dictionaries have both chosen Aussie abbreviations. Only the Macquarie allows us hoi polloi to vote for a People’s Choice Word of The Year. The result has just been announced – and most of the votes were for ‘Karen’ a pejorative putdown of a white woman overloaded with self-entitlement. When Melbourne woman, Jodi Grollo (fed up with Chairman Dan’s Covid restrictions) rode her bicycle into the city she was heard on a clip on the evening news to say she did so because she was sick of being restricted to the streets of her home suburb, Brighton. She was immediately labelled a ‘Karen.’ This pejorative use of a long established (and otherwise uncontroversial) personal name seems to have been inspired by a man in the US who started a blog vilifying his ex-wife (named Karen) for taking his money, his house and his children.

The Oxford Dictionary lexicographers have given us a whole list of what they call ‘The Words of an Unprecedented Year.’ Their list starts with ‘bushfire,’ to which they add the mistaken claim that January’s Australian bushfires were ‘the worst on record’ (when a lie is repeated often enough it’s assumed to be the truth). Then come ‘impeachment’ and ‘acquittal’ which is how 2020 began for Donald Trump (reminding us that not accepting the legitimacy of an elected president is a game invented by the Democrats not Trump). Then follows a list of Covid words that were so dominant this year: ‘coronavirus’, ‘lockdown’, ‘super spreader’, ‘social distancing’ and so on.

After some left-wing political terms from 2020 (‘black lives matter’ and ‘cancel culture’) the Oxford then includes a term the other dictionaries have missed so far: ‘mail-in’. This was flagged by Trump long before the election as the mechanism of possible voter fraud. Finally they list the climate alarmist’s favourite term of 2020: ‘net zero’ as the goal for carbon emissions. And they display astonishing naivety by quoting (with a straight face) ‘the historic pledge made by President Xi Jinping in September, that China will be carbon neutral by 2060.’

In the same vein The Spectator Australia’s own ‘Language Notes’ offers a list of our three Words of The Year for 2020: First comes what I call the Missing Word of The Year: ‘dioxide.’ This never gets a mention when the climate squad talk about ‘carbon emissions’ and becoming ‘carbon neutral.’ Carbon is a black solid substance that does not float around in the air! What they mean is carbon dioxide. Why do they leave out the second word? Is it because carbon dioxide is exhaled by all of us, feeds plants and is not all bad news?

Second, the award for the Most Irritating Word of The Year for 2020 goes to… (drum roll please)… ‘life hack.’ If you’ve had the good fortune to avoid this one so far, ‘life hack’ means ‘any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that solves a problem’. It was dreamed up back in 2004 by a technology journalist named Danny O’Brien to name the shortcuts IT professionals use to get their work done. Since then it’s been adopted more widely to name any shortcut or tricky solution. I recently read a suggestion for getting the smell of garlic off your hands (rubbing them on the surface of a stainless steel sink – although I have no idea if this works) and that trick was called a ‘life hack.’ An irritatingly unnecessary expression that makes us all sound like donut-eating, screen-glued geeks.

And finally, top of the list, here is our own Word of The Year for 2020 – ‘asymptomatic’. There are two reasons for this choice: (1) this word, which played almost no role in 2019, has been all over the medical reports that have dominated our news media this year; and, more importantly, (2) most Australians for most of the year have been mostly asymptomatic – despite the hysterical panic of public servants and politicians. So the word that sums up the experience of the pandemic for most of us is – ‘asymptomatic’. Have a happy linguistic 2021!

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