From the places we can’t go to the friends we can’t see, COVID-19 has narrowed our horizons in some pretty profound ways. One thing it hasn’t narrowed, however, is our vocabulary. In fact, this pandemic has added so many new words and phrases to our lexicon that even the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) can’t keep up.
In 2020, for the first time ever, the OED was unable to nominate a single Word of the Year. Instead, it chose to feature many, including ‘bushfire’, ‘social distancing’, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and of course, ‘coronavirus’ and ‘COVID-19’.
Some coinages are evocative, like ‘moonshot’ to describe the UK Government’s mass testing program, or ‘anthropause’ to encapsulate the environmental significance of global lockdowns. Other expressions, like ‘flatten the curve’, have helped to make a complex concept simple.
But thanks to overuse, many of 2020’s biggest linguistic hits have already turned stale. Here are some of the worn-out expressions that’ll have our proofreaders reaching for their red pens in 2021.
As we searched for a word to describe first the summer fires and then the pandemic, ‘unprecedented’ seemed like the best fit. In fact, the word beat ‘dumpster fire’, ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘pandemonium’ to become Dictionary.com’s People’s Choice Word of the Year for 2020.
After 12 months of unprecedented this and unprecedented that, you’re probably hoping you never have to read another email starting with “In these unprecedented times …” But while the word was overused, it was also – like many clichés – appropriate. 2020 really was a year like no other. Thankfully, however, it’s over.
Now that we’ve entered the second year of this pandemic, everything from lockdowns to mandatory mask wearing is actually, well, precedented. If we weren’t so down on clichés, in fact, we might even say it’s ‘the new normal’.
Now more than ever
Universities more important now than ever, says the Canberra Times. Now more than ever is the time to talk to your financial adviser, declares the West Australian. We need books, and their authors, more than ever, says the Sydney Morning Herald.
Are these headlines making everyone else nod off? While ‘now more than ever’ is meant to create a sense of urgency, overuse has had the opposite effect.
If we want to avoid boring our readers senseless, we need to, now more than ever, stop saying ‘now more than ever’.
Between March and June 2020, online usage of the words ‘new normal’ increased by 759 per cent. And it’s no wonder. While this phrase is contradictory – if something is new then how can it already be normal? – it’s also useful. From remote working to socially distanced weddings, we have adapted fast to create a new kind of normal.
That’s why, unlike the phrases listed above, our proofreaders won’t be crossing this one out altogether, but may add a note like “Be more specific”.
Do you mean the ‘new normal’ in Australia, where many aspects of life have bounced back to their pre-COVID state? Or are you talking about the UK, where residents are having to adjust to life in lockdown once again?
Right now, when life looks so different depending on where you are in the world, it pays to specify which ‘new normal’ you’re referring to.
While we’re at it …
While we can choose how often we say ‘unprecedented’, ‘now more than ever’ and ‘new normal’, there are plenty of COVID-related words and phrases over which we have no such control. But while we’re wishing, here are a few we hope never to hear again:
- toilet paper shortage
- panic buying
- you’re on mute.