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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