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15 Words and Phrases That Perfectly Defined 2020

It has been a year unlike any other—and that has spurred the use of new words and resurrected old ones to place them in our everyday vernacular.

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A year in words

One year ago, if someone were to tell you even just a handful of the events that would take place in 2020, it would have been very hard to believe. But between constant natural disasters on both coasts (and basically every other part of the country), one of the most bizarre elections in American history, massive civil rights demonstrations nationwide, murder hornets, international travel halted—and yes, the pandemic—we don’t have the time to process one piece of news before the next thing happens. There’s really no way to adequately wrap up the year, but here are 15 words and phrases that perfectly define 2020.

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What else could we have started this list with? Since the novel coronavirus first started making the rounds in China back in December, it has dictated almost every aspect of our lives. Technically, the last pandemic that hit the United States was the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. And while it was certainly serious—claiming the lives of an estimated 12,500 people in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—it didn’t affect our lives the way COVID-19 has. To find a pandemic of this magnitude, you have to go back more than a century, to the 1918 flu pandemic, which also involved large-scale closures and mask-wearing.

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Public health

The concept of public health has been around much longer than 2020, but for a lot of people, this year was the first time they really had to think in terms of how their own behaviors can impact other people’s health. The CDC Foundation defines “public health” as “the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities.” And according to Amelia Burke-Garcia, PhD, program area director at NORC at the University of Chicago’s Public Health Department, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the role of public health to the forefront—perhaps in a way that we have not experienced before. “The country is responding to the pandemic with mitigation efforts, such as mask-wearing, social distancing and contact tracing, efforts to develop an effective vaccine, and by providing mental and emotional health support,” she tells Reader’s Digest. Burke-Garcia is also the project director for How Right Now, an initiative supported by the CDC Foundation which aims to address mental health, coping, and resilience during COVID-19—all important components of public health. “Today, there is a critical role for the field of public health to play,” she explains. “To stop the spread of COVID-19 and move toward greater health equity, everyone can play a role. We must work together to ensure resources are readily available to maintain and manage physical and mental health.”, Getty Images


Remember when most people didn’t know what PPE stood for? It may only have been a few months ago, but it felt like another lifetime. In the unlikely event that you don’t know, PPE stands for “personal protective equipment,” and includes clothing, masks, goggles, and other equipment that is designed to protect the wearer from injury or infection, such as COVID-19. According to Karen Stollznow, PhD, a linguist and author of On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past & Present, PPE is one of several examples of technical terminology that has been incorporated into the everyday language of the general public, as a necessity. Others include “intubate” and “asymptomatic.” Meanwhile, get used to seeing people wearing masks and gloves, including food service workers.

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Social distancing

Back in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, public health officials, including those at the CDC, issued guidelines to help slow the spread of the virus. This was the period when we were told not to wear face masks because they didn’t help (which isn’t true), and we should save them for essential workers. At that point, we were instructed to do two things: frequently wash our hands for at least 20 seconds, and practice social distancing. Basically, social distancing involves keeping a safe distance from other people (other than those you live with), which is usually considered around six feet. Over the course of the next few months, the term “physical distancing” began to replace “social distancing.” Though both phrases refer to the idea of keeping physical space between yourself and other people, some public health experts were concerned that “social distancing” might suggest that any type of socializing is discouraged. Clearly, that’s not the case, and in fact, spending time with friends and family is a crucial part of our mental and emotional health—we just have to make sure to socialize virtually, or from at least six feet away from others. Social distancing is also important when you travel., Getty Images

Black Lives Matter

The organization and phrase “Black Lives Matter” has been around since 2013, when the movement was founded in response to the acquittal of the person who murdered Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black teenager fatally shot in Florida in 2012. According to the Black Lives Matter Foundation, Inc’s website, their “mission is to eradicate White supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” Following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020, demonstrations against police killings and racial injustice sprung up in cities around the United States, as well as the rest of the world—many of which used “Black Lives Matter” as a rallying cry against white supremacy. This upset many people who insisted that “all lives matter,” clearly missing the entire point. “But the point of Black Lives Matter isn’t to suggest that Black lives should be or are more important than all other lives,” German Lopez wrote for Vox in 2016. “Instead, it’s simply pointing out that Black people’s lives are relatively undervalued in the United States—and more likely to be ended by police—and the country needs to recognize that inequity to bring an end to it.” Here are some of the most powerful signs seen at Black Lives Matter protests., Getty Images


Living during a pandemic means getting used to thinking in terms of germ exposure, whether it’s at work, a family gathering, or in a public restroom. Without even realizing what we’re doing, a lot of us now instinctually scan our environments for “high-touch” surfaces— and then avoid them. As a result, there has been a lot of interest in “contactless” products and services. “‘Contactless’ is a buzzword that refers to technology or procedures that are designed to reduce physical contact, like payment methods such as Apple Pay, or curbside pick up for shopping,” Stollznow tells Reader’s Digest. Even though contactless payment options in some stores and touchless faucets in some restrooms have been around for a few years, they went from a “nice-to-have” to “mandatory equipment” in many places—especially cities. Here are 12 other ways coronavirus changed the way we shopped forever.

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Virtue signaling

Between the major loss of life resulting from the pandemic and increased awareness of systemic racism and police violence, some people have tried really hard to make it seem like they’re a good person—while putting in very little effort. This is called “virtue signaling,” and is most closely associated with posts on social media by individuals, companies, or organizations, essentially co-opting social-justice-related events. When a person or entity is called out for virtual signally, Stollznow says, it suggests they are only backing an idea or cause to look good in the eyes of others. “The term implies that they don’t truly believe in the cause they publicly support,” she wrote in a recent article in The Conversation. “They are acting out of bad faith, because they have an ulterior motive.” To get a better idea of some of the ongoing social issues around the world, check out this article on 13 human rights that still aren’t universal, but should be.

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After having our lives disrupted for more than six months, it makes sense that we’d try to find joy anywhere we can. And as it turns out, that includes other people’s misfortunes. Yes, we’re talking about everyone’s favorite non-translatable word from another language: schadenfreude. It comes to us from the German language, which excels at hyper-specific terms. In this case, it’s a combination of the words “schaden,” meaning damage or harm, and “freude,” meaning joy or pleasure. So what does schadenfreude have to do with 2020? This one’s fairly recent: according to Merriam-Webster, searches for the word “schadenfreude” went up by a staggering 30,500 percent on October 2nd, following the announcement that President Donal Trump and first lady, Melania, both tested positive for COVID-19.

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Who better to address the stereotype of a “Karen” than a linguist named Karen? As (Karen) Stollznow explains, it went from being a name to being a stereotype, an insult, and a meme. “The term typically refers to a middle-class, middle-aged White woman who is obnoxious and entitled in her behavior, and she is often racist,” Stollznow wrote in a July 2020 post on the Cambridge Core blog. A Karen’s signature move is asking to “speak with the manager” over a relatively petty (or in some cases nonexistent) grievance. And though calling someone a “Karen” has been around for a few years, it really took off in 2020, thanks to a combination of the nationwide movement against racial injustice (and therefore, many opportunities for someone to be racist) and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. As Stollznow notes, a “Karen” may not have a good understanding of public health, and therefore may oppose mask-wearing and social distancing, or be an anti-vaxxer. Ultimately, though, Stollznow says that “Karen” has become a gender stereotype, “and as a preconception about attributes or characteristics of women, it can be harmful.” Here are 12 other expressions you didn’t realize were sexist.

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When the pandemic and lockdown first started, people tended to fall into one of two categories: those who were adjusting to working from home and the rest of their responsibilities, and those who (for whatever reason) found themselves bored and with a lot of extra time on their hands. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, it seemed like the ideal time to tackle the cleaning, organizing, and other home improvement projects we’ve been putting off (sometimes for years). This is now referred to as “quarancleaning.” Up until 2020, when most people thought of a quarantine, it was usually in a historical context, like isolating people who had the plague, tuberculosis, or Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy) from the rest of the population. Now, the word “quarantine” is applied much more loosely, incorporating everything from self-isolating when you’re sick, to referencing all the time you’ve been spending at home over the past seven months.

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No, a “superspreader” is not someone who is particularly talented at making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (unfortunately). According to Stollznow, “a ‘superspreader’ is an event or individual to which outbreaks of COVID-19 can be traced.” Examples include college parties, conferences, religious gatherings, and White House events. “Looking at this through a modern lens, Typhoid Mary could be considered a ‘superspreader’ of her day,” Stollznow explains. Terms like “superspreader” define 2020 because of their connection to the novel coronavirus. “In these times of the pandemic—the major theme of this year—our health, safety, and very survival rely upon being able to talk about these concepts,” she adds. “As a society, these terms represent our considerations, concerns, and fears.” Ideally, if/when we make it past the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ll be more aware of our ability to spread other infectious diseases to others. Here are 13 other everyday habits that could (and should) change forever after coronavirus.

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Along with “Karen,” calling someone a “covidiot” is one of the most prominent insults of 2020. A combination of “COVID” and “idiot,” a “covidiot” is a person who ignores public health advice related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though public health is now a more prominent part of our collective consciousness than any previous point in our lifetime, the concept isn’t clicking with everyone. The idea of potentially limiting our own freedom and autonomy—in the form of wearing uncomfortable masks and giving up many aspects of our social lives for several months—for the good of our fellow humans, isn’t something that those considered “covidiots” are taking seriously. Early on, the term was also used to describe the people hoarding toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies creating shortages for everyone else. And though it’s still not clear when things will go back to normal, here’s what a post-coronavirus life could look like., Getty Images


This has been the year of everything “going virtual.” From doctor’s appointments to meetings with attorneys and accountants to real estate viewings, things we’d always have to do in-person have now moved online. And while there were several video conferencing services used before the pandemic, one rose to the top: Zoom. “Zoom” is an example of a brand—like Xerox and Hoover—that not only replaces the actual term for something (in this case, video conferencing), but has become so ubiquitous that it has achieved verb status. In other words, you can attend a meeting via Zoom, or you could set up a time to Zoom with your aunt. For more examples of our shift to living online, here are 14 things that could stay virtual forever., Getty Images

Flatten the curve

Even though most of us don’t have formal public health training, we have been getting more familiar with the discipline’s lingo in 2020. This includes the term “flatten the curve,” which refers to slowing the spread of an illness causing a pandemic so as not to overwhelm the hospital system. According to Global Language Monitor, a data research company that documents, analyzes, and tracks trends in language usage worldwide, “flatten the curve” ranked eleventh on their list of the top English words of 2020. When talking about flattening the curve, public health officials and politicians—most notably New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who loves a good chart—usually broke out a graph showing the rise in cases in a particular area, alongside its hospital capacity. The idea behind flattening the curve is to keep the infection rate slow and steady, rather than a steep incline where everyone gets sick at the same time, and there aren’t enough hospital beds, staff, or resources to care for everyone at once., Getty Images


In addition to mental and emotional health, we’ve been hearing a lot about “resilience” in 2020. In short, resilience describes our ability to bounce back, cope with adversity, and endure during difficult situations, Burke-Garcia explains. “People across the United States and around the world are experiencing something that many have not had to live through in their lifetimes,” she says. “The onset of the pandemic has brought people’s ability to be resilient into focus. According to [data from] How Right Now, people need to ensure their basic needs are met (food and housing security), social interaction and support, and online mental health support in order for them to be resilient amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”


Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth is a bioethicist and journalist covering politics, public health, pop culture, travel, and the lesser-known histories of holidays and traditions for She's always mentally planning her next trip, which she'll base around visits to medical museums or former hospitals, flea markets, local cuisine, and stays in unusual Airbnbs or historic hotels.