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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Year wracked watchful wordsmiths

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In a weekend made for reflection, one reflects.

And concludes, definitively if not profoundly: What a year this has been. It’s been so consistently unsettling that in a karmic sense one is not sure whether it’s a good or bad thing that 2020 still has a month to go.

How do you synthesize a year that saw the world wracked by a virus and the nation convulsed by racial justice protests, that witnessed the fires of climate change burning across the globe and the white-hot flame of impeachment flare and ebb in America, that was shadowed from the start by a polarizing presidential campaign that came to a conclusion but still has not ended and continues to divide people in its aftermath?

A year so confounding that the dedicated lexicographers at Oxford Languages, which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary and annually chooses a much-anticipated Word of the Year, decided they could not complete that specific task for 2020.

"The English language, like all of us, has had to adapt rapidly and repeatedly this year," Oxford said in its 2020 report released last week. "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."

Not that there weren’t good candidates. There were many. Each tapped into some part of this year’s zeitgeist. But none had sufficient scope to get its linguistic arms around the entirety of 2020.

This year, in other words, couldn’t be simply summed up as last year’s "climate emergency," or "toxic" as in 2018. Nor was it a 2017 "youthquake," or the dawn of the "post-truth" order of 2016.

In tracking news sources in the English-speaking world, Oxford found a big surge in phrases like "a strange year," "a crazy year," and "a lost year," as well as a spike in "unprecedented." All of which probably would find unprecedented agreement among English and non-English speakers alike.

Naturally, the virus offered an entire suite of newly popular words, some of which we might not have known existed, one of which — COVID-19 — did not exist at all before 2020. Just think of how conversant we’ve become with coronavirus, pandemic, community transmission, lockdown, social distancing, flatten the curve, wet market, hydroxychloroquine, shelter-in-place, supply chain, mask-shaming, superspreader, essential worker, remote working, Zoombombing, blended learning, unmute, and covidiot. And think of how seldom we used any of those words last year.

These word-of-the-year designations — and Oxford is not the only group of wordsmiths to bestow them — are not mere numerations of usage. Nor are they just funbursts designed to grab our attention for a moment before we flit to the next social media craze. These words bear witness to the resiliency of people and of language, and of people using language.

Language, thank goodness, isn’t static. It evolves, as we invent new words and repurpose, recombine or rediscover old ones. The best adaptations thrive long after the moment. Others recede from our attention and wither.

In 2020, we discovered we were woke, or not. We learned what it meant to defund, then had to decide whether that was a good idea. We were reminded that systemic racism is, in fact, a problem, though not everyone agreed, and found much the same about cancel culture. We talked a lot more about absentees and Juneteenth and net zero emissions. And we realized by compulsively doomscrolling that we knew a Karen who became an anti-vaxxer on Blursday and joined QAnon in the midst of an infodemic and protested against BLM before trying to blunt criticism with virtue-signaling. Or did we?

Perhaps 2021 will be a little less ... stimulating.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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