Hindsight for 2020
Let me begin by saying as an English teacher how disappointed I am with the Oxford Dictionary folks who failed to come up with a ‘Word of the Year’ for 2020. That’s right, a single word writing assignment. And they’ve had a whole year to work on it.
If 20 years of teaching English has taught me anything about writing assignments it’s that if you want 1,000 words you’d better assign 1,500. You want 500 — demand not a syllable less than 800. Clearly the one word assignment was doomed from the beginning.
Of course those Oxford folks did not come to class without their highfalutin excuses: “As our ‘Word of the Year’ process started and this data was opened up, it quickly became apparent that 2020 is not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single ‘Word of the Year’”. Yada, Yada, Yada. And the dog ate their homework.
To put things in perspective however readers might be duly reminded that it was the Oxford folks who actually named an emoji word of the year back in 2015. Apparently the emoji “Face with Tears of Joy” was deemed to best capture the “ethos, moods and preoccupations of 2015”. I don’t know about you, but I’m having trouble picturing a bunch of very proper academics emerging from the halls of academia proudly holding up a smiley face. So maybe our collective expectations might have been curbed from the beginning. (By-the-way “Omnishambles” made the cut in 2012 for the United Kingdom. The term referred to something not just in shambles but “something which is completely and continuously shambolic” which might have also worked for this year, but apparently redo’s are a no-no.)
Granted it was a tough year. So let me say I’m mildly sympathetic for our linguist friends. Finding a solitary word to encapsulate a year that was plagued with a global pandemic might not seem like a fair assignment. But then again let’s not forget that these folks have at least 273,000 words at their fingertips. (And of course that whole year I mentioned earlier.)
The Merriam Webster folks, I just learned, went for plain old “Pandemic”. But I think a fair case could be made that stating the enormously obvious is no real feat of linguistic artistry. Maybe like choosing “Depression” for the 1930’s or “War” for the 1942, we’re not really moving the needle of public understanding with words like these. Yes, in the words of Captain Obvious “The problem at this point is that there is a problem.”
At one point I was leaning heavily toward either Isolation! or Unprecedented! until I started interviewing my seniors who were knee-deep reading George Orwell’s 1984. It was a loaded question. The book, you might recall, is a rather bleak picture of the future and I was fully expecting to hear a chorus of voices all shouting “Dystopia!”. (Nightmarish, Broken, Out-of-control — this word was one-stop shopping it seemed to me.) Like those Oxford folks I too was over thinking things. “Awful!”, “Terrible!”, “Lousy!”, “Stinky!” I heard (and many more I don’t think I’m allowed to print here). Leave it to high school seniors to identify the problem: forget ‘Word for the Year’- what 2020 really needed was an Adjective for the Year! Maybe even Superlative of the Year! Worstest! Most Ever Stinkiest! And in the spirit of George Orwell: DoublePlusBad!
Finishing the homework for those Oxford folks was beginning to be a cathartic exercise.
One possibly that was beginning to dawn on me was that maybe the word for 2020 doesn’t even exist in the English language. Maybe, just maybe ‘Word of the Year 2020’ should have been an international effort! Maybe there’s extenuating circumstances for those derelict dictionarians after all.
And if this is the case I do think it’s the Finnish who may have the solution. (Leave it to northerners plagued with winter-long darkness to give us the vocabulary we’re looking for.) “Kaamos” apparently refers to “feelings of depression and lack of enthusiasm in addition to a pretty poor social life”. That the Finnish would even have such a word pre-Pandemic raises some troubling questions about life there in Finland. But I think we could certainly put this on the short list. “Jaksaa” similarly means “A severe absence of enthusiasm to do something. When you just don’t have enough strength, will power to do something or can’t be bothered” which I think also pretty nicely sums up our collective national mood. (And would certainly have sold t-shirts in 2020.) I have no Finnish friends to confirm this, but I will guess the word is one you might yell from your apartment balcony in the same spirit of “Stelllllaaaa!” famously uttered by Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire”.
I’ve even heard a strong case for “Good Riddance”. Yes, I know- we’re cheating with two words. But before anyone dismisses the suggestion, I’ll remind readers that this little 2-word combination is actually a Shakespearean-popularized expression which I think really ought to impress the Brits.(And one I fully intend to loudly pronounce as I march my old calendar over to the wood stove.)
At the end of the day, however, I think I’m going to go with “Resiliency”. Even our tongue-tied Brits would have to acknowledge the sentiment. I recently learned that the word comes from an old Latin term loosely meaning “the act of rebounding”. Let’s raise a glass to our collective come-back in 2021.