Phillip Louw, Oxford lead publisher, Dictionaries and Dictionary Data in South Africa, says coronavirus terms dominated linguistics this year.
Phillip Louw, Oxford lead publisher, Dictionaries and Dictionary Data in South Africa, says coronavirus terms dominated linguistics this year.

Coronavirus: more than a word

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Dec 5, 2020

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Durban - For the first time in history, Oxford Languages has chosen more than one Word of the Year in what its linguists have described as an “unprecedented” year.

Every November, Oxford Languages choose a word or phrase which has dominated in the news and social media sites.

While the Word of the Year last year was “climate emergency”, and “toxic” took the honours in 2018, Oxford Languages released a string of words this week, stating: "Just like our daily lives, the English language has undergone an enormous change over the past year, adapting rapidly and repeatedly to world events. Words that 12 months ago we couldn’t have imagined ourselves using, are now part of every lexicon."

These, of course, are connected to the Covid-19 pandemic and includes words such as coronavirus, pandemic, Covid-19, lockdown, face mask, essential workers, remote, on mute and unmute, as well as the previously little used workation (a holiday in which one also works) or staycation (holidaying at home).

Not all were linked to the pandemic, such as Black Lives Matter, impeachment and conspiracy theory. The use of the term QAnon (a fringe conspiracy theory) increased by 960% between October last year and October this year.

On Thursday, Oxford Languages lead publisher, Dictionaries and Dictionary Data in South Africa, Dr Phillip Louw said that while there was normally a Word of the Year chosen in South Africa, the pandemic had overshadowed local usage of words.

The WOTY is chosen as a word or expression shown through usage evidence to reflect the mood, ethos or preoccupations of the year and has to have the potential to be of lasting significance. For example, the word “vuvuzela” from the 2010 Football World Cup became a known word across the world.

In the past, South Africa has had words such as tenderpreneur, but Louw said that even in South Africa this year, pandemic word usage came out above all others, which was an unusual trend on its own.

"This year has been very different. The top 60 words are almost all to do with the pandemic and are used across the globe. This year has been exceptional in that it has been dominated by global patterns due to the coronavirus.

“In South Africa this year, we have seen names, more than common words dominating, such as Zondo, Ace and Brackenfell.

"We also look at new words and words that have been given a new meaning, such as social distance and remote," said Louw.

He said that in South Africa, there were words such as "Auntie Rona" which was particularly used in the Cape, but that did not make the cut.

Louw said South African words or expressions often contained an element of humour to "lighten the gravitas" of serious events in order to cope with such, while Australians tended to abbreviate words, for example isolation was shortened to “iso” and sanitising to “sani" Down Under this year.

To choose the word – or as in this year, the words of the year – sophisticated software processes “billions and billions of words and patterns of words".

"We gather all the data from the internet across the world and the text is tagged according to date and geography which is then analysed through our software, with 2020 text being compared to previous years," said Louw, adding that technology had been a major boon for the field of linguistics and dictionaries.

He said that before the internet, the WOTY was generally chosen from newspapers with "linguistic innovation being led by journalists, but that became more dynamic with social media and the younger generation".

He said Oxford Languages had termed this year unprecedented as, "since the dawn of the internet, for the first time we can track the global impact in real time," adding that this year had also seen more public interest than ever before in the Word Of The Year.

"People are fascinated by the affect the pandemic has on their lives and the impact of language is how we make sense of reality," he said.

And predictions for 2021?

"I think we will see vaccine and it will be interesting to see where BLM goes.

"Also looking at 2019, 'climate emergency', has hit pause for this year, but, I think, as vaccines become more available and life returns to normal, the word climate will emerge again once economic recovery is underway."

Independent on Saturday

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