Lockdown, algorithm and furlough – the vocabulary of 2020

Emma Bowden, PA
·4-min read

Coronavirus is a word that changed lives, economies and the world in 2020.

Data from Google has revealed that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the top search term for the UK and globally in 2020 was coronavirus. But the crisis also propelled a host of other words into headlines and everyday conversations.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some of the words that became common parlance this year.

– Lockdown

Collins Dictionary named lockdown as its Word of the Year 2020. Because in a year which saw unprecedented restrictions placed on populations across the globe, what else could it be?

According to the dictionary, a lockdown is “the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction, and access to public spaces”.

Coronavirus – Sat Nov 28, 2020
Collins Dictionary named lockdown as its Word of the Year 2020 (Danny Lawson/PA)

It came into common parlance in early 2020, with a sharp increase in usage as governments around the world imposed stringent restrictions in response to the spread of Covid-19.

– Pandemic

It was March 11 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic.

According to Merriam-Webster, which chose it as its Word of the Year, this is the day that pandemic saw the single largest spike in dictionary traffic in 2020 – showing an increase of 115,806% over the same day the previous year.

The dictionary defines pandemic as “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area (such as multiple countries or continents) and typically affects a significant proportion of the population”.

At the time, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus said there had been “so much attention on one word” – but thought terms such as prevention and preparedness “matter much more”.

– R number

Short for reproductive number, and also known as the R value or the R rate, it is the average number of people that will contract a virus from an infected person.

In a year filled with statistics and figures, the coronavirus R number has often been regarded as one of the most important.

It became a key term in the discourse of the pandemic and has been regularly mentioned in policy decisions, such as loosening or tightening restrictions.

– Zoom

The video conferencing app Zoom became a key communication tool for millions of people working and studying from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

Zoom became a key communication tool for people to stay in touch with loved ones (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

It also became a popular way for people to stay in touch with their loved ones, with “to Zoom” and “Zooming” quickly becoming common parlance during the first national lockdown.

It also spawned new terms – such as “Zoombombing”, when an uninvited person joins an online meeting, and “Zoom fatigue”, the exhaustion associated with constant or lengthy video calls.

– Algorithm

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, algorithm was a term usually associated with social media. But it became common parlance in the summer when discussing England’s A-level grading fiasco.

Collins Dictionary defines it as “a series of mathematical steps, especially in a computer program, which will give you the answer to a particular kind of problem or question”.

A-Level results
A-level students celebrate after it was confirmed that candidates in England will be given grades estimated by their teachers, rather than by an algorithm (Victoria Jones/PA)

At the centre of the row over students’ results was an algorithm devised by Ofqual to reduce grade inflation and maintain grade continuity, which was accused of discriminating against poorer students and widening inequality.

– Furlough

Furlough, while not a term coined during the coronavirus crisis, entered common usage following the introduction of the job retention scheme.

Collins Dictionary, which shortlisted the term for its Word of the Year 2020, defines furlough as “a temporary laying-off of employees, usually because there is insufficient work to occupy them”.

Announced in March, the unprecedented intervention saw the Government cover 80% of the wages of workers up to a total of £2,500 a month in a bid to save jobs.