Collins declares word of the year: ‘Lockdown’

Noun with the crown: Researchers registered a 6,000% increase in its usage.

Can a single word sum up a year? Collins Dictionary has declared that “lockdown” is the most significant word of 2020 – beating ”TikToker”, “Megxit“, “mukbang” and “BLM” to top the rankings.

The city of Brussels was on high alert. The authorities believed that a terrorist attack could be imminent: a series of horrifying events had just taken place in Paris, and one of the perpetrators was known to be Belgian. For four days, shops and schools were closed and public transport came to a halt. One newspaper described the city as having “an atmosphere of war”. It was in lockdown.

That was five years ago. Back then, “lockdown” was a little-used word. It started as a prison term for convicts being confined to their cells after a disturbance; later it became applied to security situations in which people were warned to keep out of the firing line. No one imagined it becoming part of our everyday vocabulary.

But yesterday Collins Dictionary announced it as the Word of the Year. It was chosen “because it is a unifying experience for billions of people across the world, who have had, collectively, to play their part in combating the spread of Covid-19”.

The lexicographers had found more than 250,000 usages of it, up from just 4,000 the year before. Their definition was: “The imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction and access to public spaces.”

The British government has been criticised for using military terminology in discussing the virus, such as “waging war” – and arguably “lockdown” is part of that. It could just as well have been called a “shutdown”, which sounds much less alarming. But there is no question that “lockdown” has caught on.

Words relating to the pandemic dominated Collins’s shortlist: “coronavirus”, “furlough”, “key worker”, “social distance” and “self-isolate” were all in the top 10. The others were “BLM”, and on a lighter note “Megxit”, “TikToker” and “mukbang”.

Last year, according to the lexicographers, climate change was people’s main concern. While Collins selected “climate strike” as its winning word(s), its rival the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) chose “climate emergency”. Their 2018 choices also reflected anxiety about the environment: Collins went for “single-use” and the OED for “toxic”.

The two, however, are not always in sync. Collins’s choice for 2017, “fake news”, was an echo of the OED’s 2016 winner, “post-truth”.

Political and economic terms have often come out on top – for example, “Brexit”, “big society” and “credit crunch”. But so have words related to leisure activities, such as “selfie”, “vape” and “Sudoku”. And sometimes TV catchphrases come to the fore – “bovvered” among them.

As “lockdown” shows, these words are not always new: some have been around for a long time, but suddenly taken on a new significance. And whereas most “of the year” awards reflect outstanding merit, these ones are simply based on frequency of use. Some winners, like “selfie”, could be considered hopelessly unimaginative.

Can a single word sum up a year?

Word immunity?

Some say, no. Most of these words stem from a single notable event, and every year has more than one of those: 2020 will be remembered for the furore surrounding the US elections as well as the pandemic. Equally, events seldom adhere to a calendar year: “credit crunch” was the OED’s top word for 2008, but it reflected an economic crisis which began in 2007 and lasted for several years.

Others argue that, whatever happens in the course of a year, there is always one thing that captures the public imagination more than anything else. As the Collins lexicographers point out, lockdown is something we have all had to go through, and unlike anything else we have experienced. Not only that, but it has ruled out all sorts of other things that might have made 2020 memorable.

You Decide

  1. Which other words should have been included in this year’s shortlist?
  2. What is the difference between a popular word and a cliché?

Activities

  1. Choose an image of the year and paint a picture based on it.
  2. Call My Bluff is a game in which a team chooses an obscure word from the dictionary and provides three definitions – one of them true and the other two false. The opposing team then has to guess which is correct. Divide into teams and play it.

Some People Say...

“If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Austrian philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that vocabulary can quickly develop differently even in countries which speak the same language. In Ireland the plural of “euro” is the same as the singular, whereas in England it is “euros”. The American term for lockdown is “shelter-in-place”. Australia has come up with its own pandemic terminology: “quarantine” is “quazzie”, “quazza” of “quaz”, while “self-isolation” is “iso”.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether it is possible to control people’s vocabulary. The Académie Française has tried in vain to limit the use of words borrowed from English by French speakers. But in totalitarian states many people dare not use words disapproved of by the government, and even in democracies they fear to use ones that are considered politically incorrect.

Word Watch

Perpetrators
People who carry out an action. It comes from a Latin word meaning “perform”.
Lexicographers
People who compile dictionaries, which are also called lexicons.
Stringent
Tight. It derives from a Latin verb meaning “to bind”.
Furlough
Originally a military term for sending a soldier on leave, it has come to mean temporarily stopping someone’s employment.
Megxit
A contraction of Meghan Markle’s name and “exit”, it refers to the withdrawal of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex from royal duties.
Mukbang
A video or webcast in which the host eats a large quantity of food for the entertainment of viewers. It is a rare example of a Korean word which has been added to the English language.
Big society
A phrase used by the Conservative government under David Cameron to promote the idea of giving more power to local communities.
Bovvered
A corruption of “bothered”. “Am I bovvered?” was a phrase which became hugely popular through being used repeatedly on the Catherine Tate Show on TV.

Subjects

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