Year-Ender Series: Words We Don’t Want to Hear in 2021

08 December 2020

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Panchalee Thakur

If there is one exercise that defines the global mood and tells us in one shot what dominated conversations in a year, it is the selection of the ‘word of the year.’ 

Dictionary publishers have already declared their results for the ‘word of the year’ for 2020. It comes as no surprise that the winners are ‘pandemic,’ ‘quarantine’ and ‘lockdown.’ It shows that COVID-19 has been the most discussed topic around the world in 2020. 

Terms such as ‘pandemic,’ ‘quarantine’ and ‘lockdown’ are technical terms that are best used thus. So their widespread usage is understood. However, there are a number of other words and phrases that have appeared so often in our speech in the past one year that they have lost their potency. 

We have selected five such words and phrases that English speakers have used all too often to define the current state of affairs. They are so commonplace that they do not stir any emotion in us anymore or leave us with a new thought or idea. 

These are some of the most prolific words today and they have overstayed in our active vocabulary. But before I get to the most overused words of 2020, let’s understand a little bit about the words that form our vocabulary. 

Active and Passive Vocabularies

Most adults with a proficiency level of a ‘native’ English speaker know 20,000-35,000 words. We learn a new word a day until we are middle-aged. These are some statistics from an online vocabulary test that The Economist ran a few years ago.

However, we use only a fraction of that vocabulary. 

According to Susie Dent, a lexicographer, a person who writes or edits dictionaries, we have 20,000 words in our active vocabulary, and 40,000 words in the passive version. The passive words are those that we are familiar with but not used in a while. With disuse, our comprehension of those words gets a bit fuzzy over time. Buried in the recesses of the left temporal lobe of our brain, they need some polishing and coaxing to come out. 

Instead of putting in the extra effort with the passive vocabulary, we jump at the first words that emerge from those cells. These words constitute our active vocabulary. Often, these are words that we read and hear every day. They are functional – they do the job. They are efficient – they do not need much thinking. 

But using and reusing buzzwords over and over again, instead of looking for more elegant substitutes, make us lazy, unimaginative and dull writers.

Overused Words of 2020

The five overused words and phrases that we have picked rank high on the 2020 active vocabulary of humankind. Having served us well, can they be given a decent burial now?

  • Unprecedented

Meaning: never having happened or existed in the past; having no precedent.

  • Grim milestone

Meaning: denotes a significant number of a sombre or unpleasant occurrence.

  • New normal

Meaning: a new way of life or a new state of the economy or industry that was not experienced before.

  • Uncertain times

Meaning: an unknown state that is unpredictable and frequently changing.

  • Digital pivot

Meaning: a change by which an organisation, mostly a business, uses digital technologies for all its business activities.

Which buzzwords will you retire in 2021?

Watch out for words and phrases that come to your mind the moment to sit down to write down your thoughts, pause for a moment when you come to those that you have read so often in recent times that they have lost their meaning, and think of better alternatives. You will be surprised to notice that there are many.

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