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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Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.

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Vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens before the rest of the world, has been effective for rich nations like the United States and Israel. But leaving behind so much of the global population isn't just a humanitarian issue. It could prolong the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization's Chief Scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, who argues that what the global vaccination effort most urgently lacks are doses, not dollars. In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World, she calls for a large increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and suggests we may be seeing alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

Listen: Soumya Swaminathan calls for a massive increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants, in a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast. Dr. Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, argues that vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens ahead of the rest of the world, will only prolong the pandemic because a virus does not stop at any national border. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and discusses when she thinks the world's children should get vaccinated. In addition, she suggests we may see alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

India, the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is one of the countries worst affected by climate change. But it takes issue with those now asking it to clean up its act. Why, the Indians ask, should we give up our right to get rich by burning fossil fuels like you developed economies have done for generations?

That's precisely the message that India's energy minister had for the US and other wealthy nations at a recent Zoom summit after they pressured Delhi to set a future deadline for net zero emissions. For India, he explained, such targets are "pie in the sky" aspirations that do little to address the climate crisis the country faces right now.

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The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are nearly a year away, but discussion of a potential boycott is already stoking tensions on both sides of the US-China relationship. Officials in Washington and other Western capitals are coming under mounting pressure from activists to respond to human rights abuses in China. An increasingly assertive Beijing, meanwhile, vigorously rejects any foreign criticism of what it regards as internal issues.

The last time the US boycotted an Olympics was in 1980, when it withdrew from the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union repaid in kind by skipping the Games in Los Angeles. Would the US and its allies do something like that again? And how might China respond? Eurasia Group analysts Neil Thomas and Allison Sherlock explain the drivers of the boycott movement and its possible fallout.

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In two weeks, US President Joe Biden will be hosting an online "climate summit" to mark Earth Day. He'll ask China and India to sign up to America's ambitious new plan to slow down climate change. Will they go for it? China is the world's largest polluter, but Beijing is rolling out solar and wind power as fast as it's burning coal. India, meanwhile, is loathe to pick up the slack for rich countries that polluted their way to wealth and now want everyone else to agree to emissions cuts. No matter what happens, any successful plan to reduce global emissions will require buy-in from these three nations which, along with the European Union, account for almost 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions nowadays. Here's a look at emissions by the world's top polluters compared to everyone else over the last two decades.

Two big Andean elections: This Sunday, Ecuadorians go to the polls for the second time this year in a close presidential runoff, while Peruvians will vote in the first round of their own presidential election. In Ecuador, the matchup is between the leftwing-populist frontrunner Andrés Arauz, who has pledged to blow up the country's IMF agreements and boost national oil production, and Guillermo Lasso, a pro-business candidate who is seen as the choice of continuity with the current market-friendly government. Voter abstention is likely to be high, and the final result could very well be close and contested in a polarized country that was struggling with massive social unrest even before the pandemic struck. Meanwhile in Peru — which recently went through three presidents in the space of a week — the candidate field is hugely fragmented. Those with a decent shot to make it to the second round include "change" candidates like the leftist former lawmakers Yohny Lescano and Verónica Mendoza, as well as the prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, who has recently risen in the polls. Former soccer star George Forsyth is also in the mix, as is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori. Both of this Sunday's elections will serve as a kind of bellwether for the political mood in a region that has been devastated by the public health and economic impact of the pandemic.

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