It’s quite the no-brainer. The lexicographer’s choice of the year at first appearance was gratuitous, but on closer examination drove home the understanding that plague and Spanish flu notwithstanding, in terms of scope and impact, Covid-19 was the world’s first real “pandemic” which simultaneously gave us a taste of the awful homogeneity technology and globalisation has reduced us to, in a reckoning of sorts.
But that is what the word of the year, or woty, as it is acronymed, and pronounceably so, does; be it lived reality or a culture war, it captures the spirit of the times. For instance, last year’s winner was “they”, as used to describe a transgender person, someone who does not identify as male nor female, as compared with or, if you like, opposed to the (cis)gender-neutral pronoun in the singular number, itself interred in 2017 in the Chicago Manual of Style.
No doubt, though, “pandemic”, voted in by Merriem-Webster and Dictionary.com as Oxford indulged in some good old fence-sitting by picking not one or two but 16 appellations, had good competition. It mainly came from medical lingo like “asymptomatic”, “contact tracing”, “lockdown” and, of course, “quarantine”, as well as neologisms, often at once political and “viral”, such as “anti-masker”, “the Before Times”, “BLM”, “Antifa” and “Zoom fatigue”, also “Karen” denoting a middle-class white American woman prone to bullying black men in a convenient and self-serving interpretation of women’s rights. But good old “pandemic” — the word first was used in the mid-1600s in the sense of “universal” or “affecting everyone” and began appearing in medical texts concerning the plague soon after — won the vocabulary sweepstakes, “cancelling” them all.
Now all this hooha over una palabra might infuriate some of us who like to look down on intellectual gifts and make a song and dance about “deed over word”. We know who they are but we choose here not to name them. Except that the function of the word, of naming, is critical to our understanding of this difficult, maddening, yet endlessly beautiful, world....