Our local news wraps its nightly broadcast by pushing little surveys you can take online. Earlier this week was, “Should the U.S. Senate vote to increase stimulus checks to $2,000?” (88% said yes). The night before, “What was your favorite holiday food this year?” (pie narrowly edged ham). What I find laughable is the participation rate – maybe 25 responses on average – yet the results are announced the following night like headline news. 25 is a minuscule sampling for a basis, like surveying a few of your neighbors and calling it good. Yet other companies take the exact same approach. Example: Merriam-Webster just announced its 2020 “Word of the Year”.
You’ll find almost 200,000 words in the English language (with more added every year). Should pandemic take the trophy for 2020? Well, yes, it’s hard to argue with Merriam on that one. Not only did the COVID-19 pandemic dominate headlines and conversations, the word created the single largest spike in dictionary traffic. On March 11th, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the lookup of pandemic increased over 100,000% over 2019. I can’t convert 100,000% to a quantity but I know it’s a big number.
Merriam isn’t content with just “word of the year”, however. They also list the top ten words according to increased dictionary traffic over the previous year. Accordingly, 2020 self-branded with coronavirus, quarantine, and asymptomatic. I wouldn’t think any of these words – pandemic included – induces peace of mind, but in dire situations our brains have a relentless need to know more.
With the mental fatigue brought on by too much COVID talk, perhaps you’ll find Merriam’s other top-ten words more refreshing. Antebellum made the list because the long-popular country music trio Lady Antebellum changed its name to “Lady A”; also because the movie “Antebellum” was released in September. Mamba was a top-ten for the passing of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his nickname in reference to his killer play. Kraken is the newest franchise in the National Hockey League, the mascot a mythological Scandinavian sea monster.
But none of these are my favorite. How about #7, schadenfreude? SHAH-dun-froy-duh means “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others”. In March, schadenfreude pointed to the college admissions scandal, particularly the outing of the guilty A-list celebrities. Schadenfreude also colored the daily coverage of President Trump by the so-called “fake news media”.
You may not agree with Merriam-Webster but at least its choices are based on real data – lookups that imply support from the masses. Other organizations are much vaguer with their selection criteria. Consider Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”. Time’s stated criteria is, “for better or for worse… has done the most to influence the events of the year.” By that definition it should come as no surprise to see Adolf Hitler selected in 1938, Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, and Mark Zuckerberg in 2010. However, you’ll also find almost every U.S. President on the list, as if simply inhabiting the Oval Office makes you more influential than all other persons. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are 2020’s “Person of the Year”. Uh, shouldn’t we at least get them inaugurated before evaluating influence?
[Note: Time’s “Person of the Year” recognition owes a debt to aviator Charles Lindbergh, who completed the first solo transatlantic flight in May of 1927. The magazine overlooked Lindbergh’s accomplishment by never featuring him on its cover. To make up for it, Lindbergh became Time’s inaugural “Person of the Year”. Makes you wonder if someone else was more deserving in 1927, doesn’t it?]
One more “of-the-year” example for you. Pantone, the “color company” best known for its Pantone Matching System (or PMS, a rather unfortunate acronym), chooses a color of the year to put the last twelve months in review. For 2020? Like Time Magazine, Pantone broke its own rules and went with two choices: Ultimate Gray, which suggests solid shadows cast on a wall; and Illuminating, a lemony shade hinting at “the light at the end of the tunnel”. Illuminating might be a little premature for 2020. Let’s go glass-half-full and call it next year’s color instead.
If Merriam-Webster could choose its busy buzzwords in hindsight, 2020’s winner might not be pandemic but rather, malarkey. Malarkey came in at #11 in the top ten (come again?) because it’s a favorite of President-elect Biden. Rather than saying, “C’mon man, you’re making that up.” (okay, he says that too) Biden prefers, “Give me a break; that’s a bunch of malarkey”.
“Malarkey” my words; you’re gonna hear the Biden favorite a lot over the next four years.