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  • Writer's pictureThe Belvedere Journal

How Has 2020 Reshaped The English Language?

Charlotte F

Its hard to imagine that scarcely a year ago the term social distancing was non-existent and more people would associate lockdown with a late night in the pub rather than something more akin to house arrest.

In a year that not even a psychic medium could have predicted, there has been a dramatic shift in the vocabulary we utilise in our day-to-day lives. The Oxford English Dictionary found itself so overwhelmed by this onslaught of new terms, that they simply couldn’t choose just one word of the year - instead, devising an entire list. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that scarcely a year ago the term social distancing was non-existent and more people would associate lockdown with a late night in the pub rather than something more akin to house arrest. The sheer scale of COVID-19 means it has been inescapable in our culture, and this has impacted our language in a multitude of ways. There is a lot of medical jargon previously known only to those in the medical field that have come into usage by everyday people - such as P.P.E, incubation period, quarantine, asymptomatic, ventilator, amongst others. We are more medically aware than ever, and this is reflected by the language we use on a daily basis. The pandemic has led to specific behavioural changes that would've been hard to predict this time last year. For example, there has been a heavy use of blending in 2020, coining terms such as maskne, combining the common nouns ‘mask’ and ‘acne’, referencing the breakouts many people have been experiencing as a result of wearing a mask for long periods of tim. Similarly, quarantini, combining the noun ‘quarantine’ and the popular cocktail ‘Martini’, making light-hearted reference to the fact many people have turned to alcohol during this unprecedented and uncertain time’ (also in frequent use this year). There has been a lot of lexical change driven by young people (as is the case regularly), mostly with a satirical undertone, as many young people have turned to humour to cope with difficult situations. Tiktok has become a major coping mechanism for many, and with 800 million users worldwide, the app is full of young people trying to go viral (not in the literal sense). One of my personal favourite lexical items amongst young people at the moment is the clipping of the word ‘Coronavirus’, turning it into rona, the rona, or, more comically, Miss Rona. Mass-media in 2020 has been more present than ever, and with millions stuck in their houses, mass-media consumption has been at an all-time high. This makes transmission of new linguistic terms almost as quick as transmission of the virus itself. It is rare that an event affects the entire population simultaneously, and so the pandemic has made us truly feel that we are in the same boat. As a result of this, that there are now children who would’ve been otherwise oblivious to these terms, but now know and use terms such as furlough, social distancing, etc. Before 2020, the term Zoom was most frequently used as a verb, associated with cameras and other similar technology. However, when you type Zoom into Google now, you are redirected to the web page of a video-chat company, which has gained a place in everyday life. Most people, myself included, can’t hear the word Zoom without dreading the awkward family video calls, where nan or grandad inevitably don’t know how to unmute, a now universal experience. Later on in the year, another major event occurred that changed the meaning of three simple words for millions around the globe. Black. Lives. Matter. Initially coined as a hashtag in 2013, #blacklivesmatter has had a startling spike in usage, following the murder of George Floyd in June 2020, resulting in thousands of marches and protests around the globe. Those three words that would have been deemed a simple statement by most, are now recognised as a decades long pursuit for justice for black people everywhere. Due to social media, many people began to use terms associated with the BLM movement, that they were privileged enough to not have to know before, colourism, microaggressions, inersectionality, performative activism, amongst many other terms. The heavy usage of modern technology in 2020 has lead to many people having the opportunity to raise their voices, which may have been difficult previously, and a lot of people have been able to educate themselves on the importance of the BLM movement, altering their lexis in order to use more politically correct and activism-centric words and phrases to help create a better, equal future. Modern technology has revolutionised the way in which we consume and share information, as well as rapidly increasing the process of language change, and this became more apparent than ever in November 2020. Suddenly, millions around the world found themselves sleepless for nights on end, as the 2020 US Presidential election rolled around. I myself found that I had fallen into a cycle of Doomscrolling’ on Instagram and Twitter, watching the US map flash blue and red. One word that has been the focus of the media for a while, even now as we enter 2021, is mail-in ballots or absentee ballots. With soon-to-be ex-president Donald Trump still debating the legitimacy of the results of the American election, more specifically the mail-in ballots, it would be near impossible not to accept this as a general term in the English language. 2020 has been a highly overwhelming year, and the drastic changes to the English Language certainly reflect that fact. Students of English Language learn that language will always change to suit the needs of its users, and the last year is perhaps the clearest possible evidence of how when the world changes dramatically, our langauge is swift to adapt and respond.


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