The Strange and Somber Vocabulary of 2020

Grief held us in its grip. But words are what fueled our fears.

A Super Spreader? KN95Masks? Shelter in Place? Nothing about the jargon of 2020 felt appropriate or seemed to make any sense. Yet it crawled into our minds, made itself at home on our lips. And, as the anxiety surrounding COVID-19 slowly sank in, it became our agonizing new normal.

The world was in crisis. We had to adjust. That meant altering our behavior and navigating a maze of confusing psychobabble. It meant playing a waiting game. While scientists and researchers retreated to laboratories to synthesize a vaccine, they sent mixed messages about a virus that had them baffled. In the process, they dredged up loads of hifalutin terminology and introduced us to elaborate new ways to redefine our reality.

This guidance was presented in the form of special lingo. Some of it was unfamiliar — like “Asymptomatic Carrier.” Other phrases were common and catchy: Make sure you “Mask Up!” We had to learn the nuances of “Social Distancing” and understand just how much alcohol was needed in a bottle of hand sanitizer to ensure effective protection from the Novel Coronavirus-19. Those who tired of hard data and long labels, got all cozy and nicknamed it “The Rona.” Meanwhile, many of us picked up another statement that was simple and easy to repeat: “I Can’t Breathe.” Yes, breathe. While the virus circulated and millennials infused it into the lyrics of rap songs, protests were raging. We said his name, George Floyd, over and over again and, for a moment, we felt as if our own lungs would collapse. If breathe was a buzz word for Floyd and for the virus, then so was brutality and so was the very real dread of bad cops.

Add a megalomaniac POTUS to the mix and our woes seemed to be straight out of a low-budget sci-fi movie. He suggested bleach as a remedy for COVID-19, scoffed at masks as “silly,” lashed out at hospitals that demanded more respirators, and called his critics “losers.” 

For more than ten months, he enabled pandemic deniers. In the midst of this circus, broadcasts about food shortages and a tic-tac-toe of medical advice blazed around us like cyclones, keeping us up late at night watching the news or reading just enough to get us through the next day.

The ordeal is by no means over but, thank God, we’re close. As we prepare to turn the page to what will, hopefully, be a better chapter, now seems like a good time to review the vernacular that will remain on our tongues for years to come.

So here it is, the verbal progeny of 2020:

Novel Coronavirus-19 – A new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that was originally detected in China in 2019 and had not been identified in previous years.

Super Spreader – An individual with COVID-19 who frequents public places, knowingly or unknowingly spreading the virus. The term also applies to parties, rallies and other large gatherings where many of the attendees become infected. 

Shelter in Place – A decision or order to remain in the home or another safe place to avoid contracting or spreading the virus. Individuals asked to shelter in place are expected to avoid going out in public unless it is absolutely necessary. 

Quarantine – Anyone who has the virus or has been exposed to the virus is required to separate themselves from others and remain in insolation for up to 14 days or longer depending on the region. Quarantine violations will result in prison sentences in certain countries with strict quarantine laws. 

Pandemic – The outbreak of an infectious disease that spreads quickly across continents and affects a significant portion of the world’s population.

Asymptomatic Carriers – Individuals who have the virus but do not display any symptoms. Despite their asymptomatic status, they can infect the people they encounter.

Empathy – Both Michele Obama and Dr. Anthony Fauci implored the nation to contribute to the evolution and healing of society by cultivating the emotion of empathy. Empaths feel and understand the suffering of others. 

Social Distancing – Remaining at least six feet away from anyone who is not part of your household.

Respirator – A medical device used to assist COVID-19 patients and others who are experiencing difficulty breathing on their own. The machine pushes oxygen into the lungs. 

Anti-Maskers – Individuals who refuse to wear masks. They also stage protests against requirements to wear them in public places.

Demagogue – A fanatical leader who manipulates his followers by feeding into their fears and prejudices.

Megalomaniac – A self-absorbed individual who craves extreme power and constant adulation, even if it comes at the expense of others.

I Can’t Breathe –  A slogan that was the focal point of the nationwide 2020 uprisings. The massive protests erupted after an unarmed black man, George Floyd, died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer following his arrest for an alleged counterfeit bill. The officer kneeled on his neck for nearly eight minutes.  

Defund the Police – In the wake of repeated police shootings of unarmed Black men and women, civic leaders and community activists advanced the idea of reducing police department budgets and investing more funds in public health and social services.

Stop the Count – A surprise election request issued by the 45th president of the United States in a failed attempt to prevent all of the votes from being tallied.  As more votes began pouring in for his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, the chant was shouted by Trump supporters standing outside of polling places and government offices. Trump also suggested stopping the count  when he learned an increasing number of Americans were dying of COVID-19. This expression is now being hijacked by people on diets who weigh themselves then watch the scales and yell: “Stop the Count.” It doesn’t work for them any better than it did for Trump. 

Covidiot – Someone who isn’t taking the virus seriously and tends to refer to it as a hoax.

Coronacation – A slang term coined by Generation Z to describe their leisurely approach to staying home and attending school online.

Karen – The name used for any white woman who deliberately abuses her societal privilege by launching racist attacks on people of color or calling the police on strangers (particularly Black people) engaged in simple acts like sitting in a park. Karening is not a new practice. However, a wider number of incidents were caught on video in 2020, leading to the passage of an anti-Karen law in the state of New York last August.

Stimulus Checks – Payments that bolster the economy by assisting individuals across the planet who are underemployed, have lost jobs or face layoffs due to COVID-19 related business shutdowns. So far, US stimulus payments rank lower than any in the world.

Black Lives Matter – Organized in 2013, the BLM movement was sparked by the death of unarmed teen, Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of a George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain responsible for his murder. The movement picked up steam and garnered international support during the 2020 protests on behalf of George Floyd.  

White Privilege – Although not a new concept, the notion of White privilege was pushed to the forefront during 2020. The term refers to the social, legal and economic advantages afforded to Whites and the difference between the treatment experienced by Whites and people of color when it comes to housing, law enforcement, education and overall perception.

White Allies – A term used to describe Caucasians who support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, advocate for equal rights, participate in protests and express a genuine interest in Black causes.

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