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2020: The Year That Changed Everything

How 2020 Has Affected the Way We Use the English Language

The written and spoken word may have changed more this year than they have in any other period in recent history.

First came the impeachment,* and then the unexpected death of Kobe Bryant, who’d nicknamed himself “The Black Mamba.” Next, the novel coronavirus, which would forever change the course of 2020. You could say it was an unprecedented year for the English language, and Oxford Languages declared it so by foregoing its usual practice of naming a Word Of The Year and instead focusing on how the pandemic upended our common tongue.

Oxford traces the significance of words through time, and, after the U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Donald J. Trump, the Senate’s acquittal in February was news around the world. But in the United States, outside of the impeachment drama and a contentious national election (which vaulted QAnon and schadenfreude into the spotlight), words related to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, which flourished after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in late May, were the most notable of the year.

By mid- to late March, vast swaths of the country were experiencing some sort of lockdown as a result of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. Officials encouraged even those who were asymptomatic to wear PPE, like masks, to social distance, and to stay at home in order to flatten the curve. For many of us who weren’t furloughed or laid-off entirely, we started remote working in March; throughout the metro Denver region, school-age kids began remote learning. Essential workers, however, still had to report to work. Every day became just another Blursday—often filled with unchecked doomscrolling and never-ending Zoom meetings where we couldn’t f*&%ing figure out how to unmute—as we struggled with our new monotonous, quarantined reality.

By late summer, it seemed as if the public-health measures were working, and while we all waited for news of a vaccine, there was a furtive reopening—which ultimately resulted in second and third waves of the pandemic. We saw superspreader events. And we witnessed covidiots in Colorado do things like gather en masse to tube on Boulder Creek, and our very own Mayor Michael Hancock, after imploring Denverites to stay home for Thanksgiving, hop on a plane to visit his daughter in Mississippi for the holiday.

As the pandemic raged, a massive social movement took root in this country after Floyd’s killing, which brought attention to the systemic racism endemic to America and many other Western nations. Years after Colin Kaepernick took a knee, huge protests highlighting racial disparities in the United States spontaneously arose in major cities (like Denver) and small towns (like Norwood and La Junta in Colorado) alike. There were calls to decolonize institutions and defund police departments. Some observers suggested that the large sizes of the demonstrations were due in part to white allyship; at the same time, people on social media specifically shamed white women, generically dubbed Karens, who were stereotypically racist and exclusionary. Virtue-signaling on social media was often met with derision and a growing cancel culture further divided an already divided country. Juneteenth, long ignored by much of America, was finally observed by many state governments and private companies alike. The recognition that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) were underrepresented in all aspects of American society led to a flood of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) training at workplaces and in schools. The country’s wokeness quotient may have hit an all-time high—but how long it will last remains to be seen.

As the year wore on, public-health officials warned of a twindemic—in this case, the coronavirus pandemic and a mental health epidemic resulting from the year’s myriad challenges, including the anguish caused by social unrest. If all that weren’t enough, the late summer and early fall wildfire season in Colorado gave us the two biggest fires in state history; months earlier, the tragic conflagrations in Australia pushed the word bushfire to the fore of the language.

By the time the election rolled around, Coloradans had voted by mail-in ballots in record numbers. And as Colorado attorney Jenna Ellis made her way around the country with Trump election lawyers Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell in an effort to challenge President-elect Joe Biden’s clear win in both the popular vote and the electoral college, Powell promised to “release the kraken,” a reference to…uh…well…who the hell knows? After all, it was 2020. As Biden might say, it was a fitting end to a year that was full of a bunch of malarkey.

*Each bolded word in this piece has been highlighted either by Oxford Languages and/or Merriam-Webster as a word with significantly increased usage or as an entirely new word in 2020. The latter organization’s Word Of The Year was “pandemic.”

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