Word of the year: adapt; what’s yours?

Published 7:48 pm Friday, December 25, 2020

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As the year draws to a close, it’s natural that we start looking back on all that happened and try to make some sense out of it.

Annually, all the English dictionaries choose their “word of the year.” They use different metrics and methods to figure out one word to represent our collective experience over the past 12 months. Oftentimes they pick their most searched word, since that typically indicates that it’s a word on a lot of people’s minds. The word is usually a hot topic of discussion for a sustained period of time.

But how do we even begin to sum up the weirdness of 2020? Any word we pick, however relevant, will fall short in being able to encompass the last 366 days (among other things, 2020 was also a leap year). Despite the impossibility of the task, there were a few words each dictionary picked as their “word of the year” for 2020.

I don’t know how often this happens but Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com both picked the same word this year: “pandemic.”

If we didn’t know what pandemic meant before (“a disease outbreak that occurs over a wide area and affects a significant proportion of the population”), we certainly do now. Merriam Webster noted that searches for the word’s definition began gaining steam on January 20, which is the day the first positive COVID-19 case was identified in America. By March 11, when the World Health Organization officially categorized the situation as a pandemic, the website reported an increase of 115,806 percent in definition lookups compared on the same day a year ago.

Dictionary.com said their decision to pick “pandemic” was “overwhelmingly clear. One word kept running through the profound and manifold ways our lives have been upended in this unprecedented year.”

I have to agree with them: just about every major event that happened this year was shaped by the pandemic in some way. It shook up the way we work, the way we learn, the way we communicate, and so on.

Last year, Dictionary.com chose “existential” as their word for 2019, noting that the word “captures a sense of grappling with survival—literally and figuratively—of our planet, our loved ones, our ways of life.” Who knew that their previous pick would be such an omen for the beginning of the next decade?

The Collins Dictionary chose “lockdown” as their word this year, breaking their streak of environmentally related picks from previous years. That’s a pretty good pick as well, I think. While the original definition refers to prisoners getting confined to their cells, language is always evolving. So now “lockdown” is considered a public health measure used to help slow and stop the spread of the virus.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was actually too indecisive this year to pick just one. “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,” they said in their report.

Like others, plenty of the words they highlighted had to do with the COVID-19 pandemic, including “social distancing” and “self-quarantine” as well as stranger terms like “Blursday” and “mask-shaming.”

OED also recognized words associated with protests for racial justice such as “Black Lives Matter” and “systemic racism” and “defund.”

Their report called this an “unprecedented” year which explains why our language has shifted so much in such a short amount of time.

Who knew that a new decade would turn the whole world upside down?

Personally, I always like to choose my own “word of the year” to describe how I managed to make it through the past twelve months. My word for 2020 is “adapt.”

Last year, I chose “exhaustion” as my word because 2019 was a rollercoaster of a year for me. And I could have picked it again this year, since things have, in fact, gotten even busier on top of the stress of working through a pandemic. But I think “adapt” is the most accurate and most positive word I can come up with instead.

I’ve written so many stories this year showcasing how we’ve been able to adapt to the constantly changing conditions of the pandemic. I remember the teddy bear scavenger hunts for kids, the outdoor high school graduations, the virtual church services, the drive-thru food giveaways, the alternative plans for local Christmas events.

The world didn’t stop turning just because the pandemic knocked us off our feet. We figured out new ways to do things safely and made plans to resume our usual routines after this is all over with.

I learned to adapt too. It was very strange adjusting to working from home for a few months. But it was also interesting to adjust to telling stories from new perspectives. I also had to adapt to wearing a mask in public and filling my time with more home-bound activities. Ultimately, I’m still getting used to this “new normal,” but I’ll be able to handle it until life is back on track.

What would be your personal Word of the Year?

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.