Posted by: Jack Henry | December 29, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Words of the Year (Bye-bye 2020)

Well good morning, my fellow word lovers!

The coming new year reminded me to check in with Merriam-Webster to look at 2020’s words of the year. I read the article and I have to say that I am so tired of hearing about “the virus.” I will tell you the top 11 words, but I’m just going to skip over a bunch of them.

But the virus isn’t the only thing affecting what we’ve looked up over the last 365 days, oh no. We were curious about politics, murders, deaths, and did I say politics? Well, for that reason, I’m not excited about some of the other non-virus words.

What does that leave us with then? It doesn’t leave us with much. Here are the words, along with some of the descriptions. If you want more, check out the link above. What a year!

  • pandemic (word of the year)
  • defund
  • coronavirus
  • mamba
  • kraken
  • quarantine
  • antebellum
  • schadenfreude
  • asymptomatic
  • irregardless
  • icon
  • malarkey

Let’s start with defund, since the issue that made people curious is still front and center in the U.S. (And here is my pitch for the JHA BIG Mosaic. Check it out!)

Protests in response to the killing of Black people by police officers punctuated the year, and a word from those protests rose in lookups beginning in June: defund. The word was key in the many conversations about how to address police violence, as activists called for the defunding of police forces, and others tried to understand what that in practicality would mean.

We define defund as “to withdraw funding from.” The word is a recent addition to English, in use only since the middle of the 20th century.

I remember this next word from some African stories and fairy tales I read in college. But this word’s prominence was not due to a resurrection of fairy tales.

In January, the world lost one of basketball’s greats: Kobe Bryant, along with nine other people including one of Bryant’s daughters, died in a helicopter crash. As news of the crash spread, dictionary users searched for a word strongly associated with the player: mamba. “Black Mamba,” he was called—a nickname the player had chosen for himself more than a decade before.

Mamba refers to “any of several chiefly arboreal venomous green or black elapid snakes of sub-Saharan Africa,” and comes from the Zulu word imamba. The black mamba in particular is very fast, and very deadly.

Finally, some good news! They released the Kraken and introduced hockey in Seattle!

On July 23rd, Seattle’s brand-new National Hockey League franchise chose “Kraken” as its team name, hurling the word kraken into top lookup territory.

A kraken is a mythical Scandinavian sea monster; the word, which comes from Norwegian dialect, has been used in English since the middle of the 18th century. Krakens have featured in various contexts more familiar to English speakers than Scandinavian folklore, including various iterations of krakens in Marvel comics and a memorable monster in “Clash of the Titans.”


And this may be good news to some of you…

When all was said and done in 2020, the word irregardless had earned a spot in the Words of the Year pantheon—mostly just by having the temerity to be a word. While some will deem the word’s presence in this list as further evidence of how truly odious the year was, we in the dictionary business know that the word qualified for inclusion here because people care about language, and that’s worth celebrating.

The next word is icon, which has so many meanings.

Among those lost in a year of many painful losses were two individuals whose life’s work persisted long after they’d earned a restful retirement. As writers sought to eulogize first Representative John Lewis in July, and then Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September, they called upon the word icon to do so. The word saw significant increases in lookups in both instances…

A person who is identified as an icon is successful and admired, and frequently also representative of some ideal. Like many human icons, the word’s beginning was a modest one: in earliest use it referred simply to an image. Eventually, it referred specifically to an image of religious value, an icon being a sacred image, often one painted on a small wooden panel and used by Eastern Christians in their prayer and worship.

Lastly, we have malarkey. I have always liked this word. Apparently so does Joe Biden, but I said I’d avoid politics.

…the word’s true origins are not clear. It resembles an Irish last name (sometimes spelled Mullarkey), but could also have come from Irish slang or even a similar-sounding Greek word. [KC – Okay, I know exactly what Greek word they are talking about and it is definitely used a lot, but it is not a nice word. Now that I think
about it though, it does—like malarkey—mean nonsense or drivel or “bull.”] …We trace its earliest use back to the 1920s.

The informal and even euphemistic nature of malarkey may account for some of the visits to the dictionary’s pages, which likely aim to answer the very basic question: “is that word in the dictionary?”

There you have it! I wish all of you the best 2021, from the top of my head and the bottom of my heart!

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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