Last week, Merriam-Webster released its annual list of the “words of the year,” and, as per usual, it served as an imperfect but entertaining time capsule of the year.
Trying to define a span of 365 days with only a select few words is never an easy task, but 2020, more so than most years, had the luxury of being defined by one event, and this was reflected in the selections.
Merriam-Webster selects their words of the year by looking at the search traffic of certain words on their website as well as year-by-year increase in searches for the word. From this, they compile a list of the most significant words and present them in the list.
The selected word of the year was “pandemic,” and a plethora of other pandemic-related terms appeared in the runner-ups.
In addition to “pandemic,” “coronavirus,” “quarantine” and “asymptomatic” were all identified as words that defined this nightmarish year.
The list also captured the civil unrest of the year with “defund,” in reference to the movement to defund the police in response to police violence against Black people.
In a similar vein, “antebellum” made the list in part due to the controversy surrounding the name of the band “Lady Antebellum.” In 2020, the band changed its name to “Lady A” due to the connections of the word “antebellum” to the enslavement of Black Americans before the Civil War.
Both “mamba” and “icon” got places on the list in response to notable deaths. “Mamba,” because of the “Black Mamba” nickname that Kobe Bryant gave himself, and “icon” because of its heavy usage in tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Lewis.
On a much lighter note, the word “kraken” was deemed significant due to how much the word was looked up after the new Seattle NHL expansion team announced that its name would be the “Seattle Kraken.”
Controversially, “irregardless” made it on this list for a second year, its first being in 2016, and for the same reason as well. The word, yes, it’s a word, became a subject of debate on social media after various celebrities claimed that it was not, to which Merriam-Webster responded by pointing out that it has been in their dictionary since 1934.
President-Elect Joe Biden also had some representation on this list, with his trademark “malarkey” being a runner-up. This inclusion follows a trend of words being used by presidential candidates finding their way in this list. “Bigly,” as popularized by President Donald Trump, and “shellacking,” used by former President Barack Obama in 2010, are two other notable entries in this ilk.
The last word to mention is “schadenfreude,” which, I have to say, is the most fun word on the list by a mile. This word, borrowed from the German language, means “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.”
The word garnered so much attention this year because of its increased use when Trump got COVID in early October, and was often used to encapsulate the emotions of many in reaction to the incident.
Overall, the list does a decent job of encapsulating a lot of what 2020 was, but at the cost of some of the more outlandish words that have made it onto the list in the past.
In earlier years, the Merriam-Webster list has included fun words such as “defenestration,” “sardoodledom,” “ebullient” and “surreptitious,” but this year had a pretty decided lack of these kinds of words, and focused more on serious topics.
It is likely that the spots usually dedicated to the likes of “dissident” were simply not present due to the heavy focus on COVID, which, to be fair, is more than justifiable.
I think the inclusion of the weirder words is what usually makes these lists fun to look at, but perhaps the slight shift in tone is appropriate considering the year 2020 has been.