From doomscrolling to zooming, the words we picked up in 2020

·11-min read

Each year generates new words or expressions but a year of pandemic perhaps more than others, whether debating “herd immunity”, monitoring the "R rate", or sharing a “quarantini” on Zoom.

Most people will have added several new words to their vocabulary in 2020, many – but not all – coronavirus-related. Some have been around for centuries but have acquired new meaning or resonance, while others were the creations of a new world where “Zooming” and “doomscrolling” became popular pastimes.

Covid-19 pandemic

There is little doubt that 2020 will be remembered as the year of the novel coronavirus, or SARS-Cov-2, the “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus” that spawned the deadly Covid-19 disease. The World Health Organization formally declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern at the end of January, then a full-blown pandemic on March 11. Still, countries around the world – including some of the wealthiest Western democracies – were caught woefully unprepared.

Derived from the Greek words “pan” (all) and “demos” (people), pandemic proved to be a fitting term for a virus that truly impacted people across the globe, infecting hundreds of millions, upending the global economy, exacerbating inequalities, and exposing the catastrophic consequences of mankind’s exploitation of nature.

Lockdown

One of the more startling features of the year was the speed with which nature appeared to reclaim lost territory once much of the world’s population was ordered into lockdown. In practical terms, lockdown (or confinement, in France) was perhaps the most tangible effect of the pandemic for most people on the planet. As a result, the very nature of the term has evolved.

Lockdowns were once associated with buildings – such as prisons – or neighbourhoods, and limited in time. Henceforth, the word will convey images of entire cities and nations confined to their homes, sometimes for months on end, to keep an invisible enemy at bay. It will evoke a time when every day was “Blursday”, spent monitoring the pandemic’s R rate (reproductive number or R0) – the average number of people each person with the disease goes on to infect – or morbidly doomscrolling on social media for more catastrophic news.

Asymptomatic

What made this invisible enemy all the more sinister was the knowledge that it could spread undetected among asymptomatic – but contagious – people, particularly the young. In August, as European beach clubs reopened following months of lockdown, the WHO warned that “people in their 20s, 30s and 40s” were “increasingly driving the spread”, many of them “unaware they are infected”. This, in turn, increased the threat for more vulnerable groups, including elderly people and those with pre-existing health conditions.

Quarantine

Keeping the holidaymakers at bay became a priority for governments as they sought to fend off a dreaded “second wave” of the novel coronavirus. In mid-August, tens of thousands of British tourists scattered across Europe joined a desperate scramble to return home before quarantine rules suddenly came into force. Those who missed the deadline were ordered to “self-quarantine” for 14 days.

Originating in 14th-century Venice, the term quarantine – or quarantena in Italian – actually means “forty days”, the number of days imported goods were left on a ship to be sure they were not infected with plague. For the coronavirus, people were told to self-quarantine for just 14 days after possible exposure (leading the French to coin the term quatorzaine). Like so many things Italian, quarantine had to spawn something appetising too: Enter the viral hashtag #quarantini, applied to just about any homemade cocktail that features some sort of hard liqueur and enjoyed at any time of day by those in lockdown.

While quarantine was generally applied to travellers, self-isolation was required of anyone exposed to the virus. Those who developed symptoms and tested positive, including presidents Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump, had to self-isolate for a minimum of seven days until symptoms vanished.

Social distancing

For everyone else, social distancing became the golden rule. The pandemic imposed a radical rethink of the way people approached space and physical contact. From the outset, it saw experts wrangle over the safe distance required between people – whether 1 metre, 6 feet (1.8 metres), two arms or more.

Across the world, families, businesses and governments wrestled with the logistical challenges of enforcing social distancing at work, in shops or on public transport. The challenge was especially daunting for schools catering to thousands of pupils, poor families living in cramped quarters or inmates stuck in overcrowded prisons.

People came up with inventive means to go about their daily lives while sticking to the rules. A Portuguese nursing home used a crane to allow families to visit loved ones confined within the building, while one Canadian invented a “hug glove” to embrace her mother on Mother’s Day. Meanwhile in France, the locals expressed concern – and some expats voiced relief – that the virus would banish the tradition of greeting people with a bise, or double cheek kiss.

Contact tracing

It took a lot less than a hug or a bise from someone infected to warrant a call from contact tracers. Long known to health professionals, contact tracing became a familiar topic of discussion this year, along with social distancing. It saw governments deploy apps and special task forces to trace people who had been in contact with anyone infected. The intrusive nature of contact tracing raised numerous privacy concerns, but it proved highly effective in those countries – like Taiwan and South Korea – that made most ample use. In other countries, populations hesitant to be traced spelled failure for attempts to use apps to track infections.

P.P.E.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) – and the lack thereof – garnered a lot of attention this year. Acute shortages of face masks and other protective gear for health workers on the front lines of the pandemic soon became a national scandal in many wealthy countries. Compounding the scandal, some governments initially sought to conceal the shortages by downplaying the utility of masks.

In France, the lack of masks spurred media investigations and public inquiries into the chain of events that led a once-formidable PPE arsenal to be almost entirely dismantled in the years preceding the pandemic. Masks were also at the heart of the election campaign in the US, where President Donald Trump spurned experts’ advice on wearing masks and mocked his election rival Joe Biden for wearing one.

Chloroquine

Instead of sporting masks, Trump became the most high-profile proponent of a widely debunked theory according to which the malaria drug chloroquine, and its related compound hydroxychloroquine, constituted a “miracle cure” against Covid-19. The drug triggered furious disputes among health professionals and fuelled numerous conspiracy theories. Amid the confusion, drug regulators in France and the US briefly authorised the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat severe cases of Covid-19, only to reverse their ruling as more and more studies concluded that the medicine offered patients no benefit and could be responsible for side effects including serious heart rhythm problems, kidney damage and liver failure.

Herd immunity

In another incidence of science becoming politicised and widely misunderstood, the concept of herd immunity entered common parlance this year as a result of the pandemic.

Herd immunity refers to a population becoming immune to a disease once most people have fought it off or through vaccination. During the pandemic, it became associated with unorthodox – some would say reckless – strategies of allowing the virus to spread largely unchecked (or to “Take it on the chin, take it all in one go,” as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it).

Sweden, which pursued a herd immunity strategy, was often cited as an example by opponents of lockdowns and other restrictions. But, as a second wave of infections pushed the country’s hospitals to the brink, the government’s bold plan earned a rare rebuke from the Swedish king, who stated: “We have failed.”

Essential workers

What made herd immunity shocking to most people was the idea that it involved abandoning the vulnerable to their fate. The same could be said of “essential workers”, referring to the many people who performed indispensable jobs that could not be done from home and who, essentially, became the sacrificial lambs of the pandemic.

“Cashiers, caregivers, street cleaners, security agents, delivery workers … Basically all the people who prop up the country today, all those who hold the front line and put themselves in danger, they come from the working-class districts, from [the suburbs],” said one lawmaker from the Paris suburbs, as the French capital’s wealthier citizens fled to the countryside or worked from home.

“Our entire country rests on women and men that our economy rewards so poorly,” President Macron told the French nation in one of several televised addresses. The French president went on to add that “social distinctions can only be based on the common good”. But when France’s minimum wage came up for review in December, his cash-strapped government chose not to increase it.

Frontline workers

No workers proved more essential than the nurses, doctors and caregivers who bore the brunt of the pandemic at desperately overstretched hospitals and nursing homes around the world. The pandemic’s frontline workers were hailed as “heroes in white blouses”. In some countries, people took to their windows every night at 8pm in the early months of the pandemic to applaud them. Conversely, the initial failure to provide healthcare workers with even basic protective gear ranked among the most embarrassing fiascos for governments, including in wealthy countries like the United States, France and the United Kingdom.

Zoom

Applauding healthcare workers was one of many daily rituals that developed during lockdown, a chance to engage in some form of socialising with neighbours, even if it was just a wave. But for millions of people, social life moved almost entirely online, most likely on Zoom.

A video-conferencing software originally designed for businesses, Zoom instantly became the go-to platform for most forms of interaction, be they work-related meetings, university lectures or Zoom parties. Like Google, the proper noun proved so successful it spawned a verb: “Zooming”.

Zoom’s startling rise to fame has not been without controversy, however, with privacy issues soon coming to the fore. The fledgling company notably scrambled to beef up security after a series of high-profile “Zoombombings” saw white supremacists interrupt webinars to engage in anti-Semitic rants.

Isolation bubbles

Zoom sessions also helped sport fans cope with an unprecedented lack of live entertainment, the pandemic having halted or postponed almost all events – including the Tokyo Olympic Games. When the action finally resumed in the summer, it was at soulless venues devoid of fans. Some of the wealthier sports set up special “bubbles” to protect athletes and staff from contagion – the most famous being the NBA Bubble isolation zone set up at Walt Disney World in Florida to host the world’s top basketball stars over a period of three months. A $190 million investment, the special isolation zone ensured no recorded infections among the 22 teams taking part.

On a much smaller scale, Covid-19 “bubbles” became an aspect of everyday life, most notably with “buddy bubbles” – the small circle of people one socialised with, believing them to be uninfected or just as a way to minimise contact and thereby risk.

Black Lives Matter

A success in sporting, health and financial terms, the NBA Bubble had an even bigger impact as a platform for players and officials to protest against racial injustice in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Players wore T-shirts and masks with the words, “Black Lives Matter”, and NBA officials agreed to paint the words on the courts too.

The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013, but this was the year it truly went global, inspiring protests across the world and becoming instantly recognisable through its initials, BLM. In Europe, the movement prompted unprecedented scrutiny of the continent’s colonial past, with protesters targeting statues of past figures associated with slavery – and even tossing one into Bristol harbour.

Like BLM, the symbolic act of “taking a knee” predated 2020 but truly came of age this year. British Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton – the most successful driver in history, as of December – took a knee ahead of every race this year, and so did athletes on all continents in sports as diverse as football, baseball, rugby and cricket.

QAnon

Attempting to discredit protests against police brutality and racism, some politicians – chief among them the US president – pointed the finger at antifa, an umbrella term derived from “anti-facist” that denotes an array of groups and individuals of leftist tendencies who are often at the forefront of anti-racism protests.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Trump expressed sympathy for QAnon, a bizarre far-right conspiracy theory alleging that Democrats are part of a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring. Some QAnon supporters – two of whom won seats in the US Congress in November – have urged the president to declare martial law and overturn Biden’s election win.

The last year of Trump’s turbulent presidency also gave prominence to another far-right group, the Proud Boys, whose violent actions he refused to condemn outright. However, the publicity Trump gave to the male-only, neo-fascist group backfired spectacularly when the #ProudBoys hashtag was hijacked by gay couples who posted pictures of themselves on social media – with actors, artists and the Canadian armed forces among those who shared photos in support.