2020, in a few choice words

2020, in a few choice words

How to capture the essence of this incredible, terrible year in a few short words and without using profanity? It's not easy.

Thankfully, the dictionary website Merriam-Webster.com has released its list of most heavily searched words of 2020, and they tell the story of an historic year in US politics and the life of our planet. Here's a sample.

The top word, unsurprisingly, was "Pandemic," a disease outbreak that covers a wide area and afflicts lots of people. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis hit every region of the world, triggering a public health, economic, and political emergency on a geographic scale our planet has never experienced. Differing responses to that problem defined the politics (and geopolitics) of 2020.


Large numbers of people looked up the word "Defund" in 2020 to understand what many US protesters were chanting about this summer. Calls to "defund the police" erupted following the police killing of George Floyd, but many voters were confused about whether it meant stripping police of all funding or simply diverting some of the police budget toward mental health services and community development projects. Former president Barack Obama opined this week that calls to "defund the police" had "lost a big audience," costing Democrats at the ballot box last month.

Searches for the word "Icon" spiked following the deaths of Congressman John Lewis in July and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. Lewis and Ginsburg are excellent examples of those whose achievements lift them beyond fame toward myth, and there were far too many similar losses in every country to list here. But COVID-19 also stole many an icon from within families around the world.

Merriam-Webster has included the word "Irregardless" in every edition of its dictionary since 1934, but online searches for the word skyrocketed this year when actress Jamie Lee Curtis said something provocative that we're just too lazy to investigate. Here's the deal: The correct word is "regardless." As in… "Regardless of its inclusion in Merriam Webster's dictionary, 'irregardless' is not a damn word."

Curiosity about the word "Kraken" rose suddenly in July when Seattle's professional hockey team took the name of this "fabulous Scandinavian sea monster." What better metaphor for 2020 than the unseen beast that threatens our lives and makes travel especially dangerous? Searches for this word spiked again in November when Trump campaign lawyer Sidney Powell promised to "release the kraken," evidence that proves the US presidential election was stolen from her client. Until a US court tells us otherwise, we'll assume that this particular mythical monster lives at the bottom of a lake in Edison County, Michigan.

Speaking of "Malarkey," that's a word meaning "insincere or foolish talk" that's become part of president-elect Joe Biden's "Regular Joe" political brand. Republicans say Democrats are the party of elites, and many voters agree. To avoid that label, Bill Clinton likes to talk about aging hound dogs, and Barack Obama sometimes launches into a bizarro Chicago/Hawaii-style southern accent that makes us actual southerners suppress the giggles. Merriam-Webster is at its most amusing in listing synonyms for malarkey, and it's not hard to imagine Biden whipping out any of these folksy words. (Our favorites are blatherskite, fiddle-faddle, and tommyrot.)

The word "Quarantine" derives from a 14th century Italian word that describes the 40-day isolation of a ship entering port to protect those on shore from the risk of Bubonic Plague. In 2020, it took on the broader meaning of isolation, a trial suffered by those infected with the coronavirus and those who hoped to avoid it. But isolation and loneliness have taken a heavy toll on mental and emotional health around the world this year.

Finally, there is "Schadenfreude," a German word meaning "enjoyment taken from the troubles of others." The world faced many an unexpected misfortune in 2020, and responses were often shaped by affiliation to political tribe rather than human empathy. Here's hoping for lighter burdens and a little more kindness in 2021.

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Should you believe the hype(rsonic)?

Over the past few months, US officials have become increasingly alarmed about a new type of killing machines called "hypersonic weapons."

The top US General, Mark Milley, said that China's successful test of an advanced hypersonic weapon earlier this year was "very close" to a "Sputnik moment" – referring to the Soviet Union's surprise launch of the world's first artificial satellite in 1957, which raised fears that the US was lagging behind a formidable technological rival.

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Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington, shares insights on US politics:

Why did President Biden renominate Jay Powell to be the chairman of the Fed, and who's his No.2, Lael Brainard?

Well, Powell by all accounts has done a pretty good job of managing the Fed through the coronavirus pandemic. He dusted off the playbook, first pioneered by Chairman Bernanke during the financial crisis, and he's largely continued the relatively easy monetary policy of his predecessor at the Fed, now Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen. With inflation growing the way it has over the last several months, Biden now owns the policies of the Fed and is essentially endorsing what Powell has been doing and giving Powell the political cover to continue to keep rates low for longer, or as many people expect, raise them slightly over the next 12 months in order to fight inflation.

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When Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who created the "1619 Project" tweeted: "In this country, you can even kill white people and get away with it if those white people are fighting for Black lives. This is the legacy of 1619." In an upcoming interview with Ian Bremmer, she explains why she saw the verdict as a consequence of this country's long history of double standards when it comes to racial justice. "The fact that we own more guns in this country than any other country is certainly a legacy of 1619" Hannah-Jones says. "This idea that white Americans can patrol, that they have the right to open carry, this is not something that Black Americans can engage in, in the same way." Watch her full conversation with Ian Bremmer in an upcoming episode of GZERO World.

Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at Peng Shuai's public appearance, El Salvador's "Bitcoin City," and Americans' Thanksgiving celebrations.

Why has China silenced its famous tennis player, Peng Shuai?

Well, they haven't completely silenced her in the sense that the head of the IOC, the International Olympic Committee with Beijing Olympics coming up, basically told the Chinese government, "hey, what is the absolute minimum that you can do so that we can get Beijing Olympics back on track?" And they did the absolute minimum, which was a half an hour phone call with her that felt like kind of a hostage phone call. But nonetheless, she says that she is fine and is private and doesn't want to talk about the fact that she had accused the former Vice Premier of sexually assaulting her. That is a fairly heady charge. It was clear, going to get a lot of headlines in the run-up to the Olympics. And she wasn't heard from after that. So big problem for the Chinese in the run-up to the Olympics.

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What We're Watching: Biden's oil dilemma, Abiy Ahmed takes up arms, Iran nuclear talks on life-support

Biden's oil dilemma. The Biden administration says it will releasing some 50 million barrels of crude from US stockpiles in a bid to reign in soaring gasoline prices. Similar moves were made by Japan, South Korea, and China in recent days as global energy prices rise and supplies remain scarce in many places amid the ongoing economic recovery. Pain at the gas pump and broader inflation concerns in the US have contributed to Biden's tanking poll numbers. With Republicans poised to do well in next year's midterm elections, the president is under pressure to turn things around fast. But Biden has already come under fire from environmental groups, who say the president's move flies in the face of his Glasgow commitments to reduce rather than boost fossil fuel consumption. But in domestic politics, bread-and-butter issues are paramount, and if Biden doesn't "fix" the gas problem hurting American families, the Democrats could suffer a beating at the polls. What's more, Biden has also angered the 23-nation Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which worries that extra US oil on the market will bring down prices for their own crude. Now the organization is warning that it might renege on an earlier promise to produce more oil.

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A view shows the site where a bus with North Macedonian plates caught fire on a highway, near the village of Bosnek, Bulgaria, November 23, 2021.

45: At least 45 people – including several children – were killed in Bulgaria Tuesday when a bus caught fire while traveling on a highway back from Istanbul. Poor infrastructure and road safety have resulted in Bulgaria recording the second-highest number of traffic fatalities in the European Union after Romania.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here, and happy week to you, happy Monday. Just back from Singapore, and of course, I arrive in the United States and political insanity on a whole bunch of things. The thing that really struck me was the Rittenhouse acquittal. Kyle Rittenhouse, this young man who brings an AR-15 to riots and ends up shooting and killing two people, injuring a third, and found not guilty unanimously by the jury on all counts. And the country, as expected in these things... And this is by far the legal case that's gotten the most attention in years, and the response of the country is absolutely polarized, and so depressing to me.

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