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The 20 phrases that defined 2020

From contact tracing to Black lives matter and flattening the curve, here are the words and phrases that were popularised this year

By Tim Herrera
Published: Dec 22, 2020

The 20 phrases that defined 2020This pandemic plagued year has given us scores of new words, phrases, expressions and metaphors. Some are new to the popular vernacular, like quarantine pod. Some are newly relevant after long histories as specialized terms, like contact tracing. Some, like maskne and walktails, are just goofy little turns of phrase that let us find a drop of joy in this disastrous year. (Ade Hogue/The New York Times) 

Happy Blursday! Now quit doomscrolling, grab a quarantini and please keep social distancing.

Imagine explaining that sentence to yourself in December 2019.

This year has given us scores of new words, phrases, expressions and metaphors. Some are new to the popular vernacular, like quarantine pod, while others are just newly relevant after long histories as specialized terms, like contact tracing. Some are technical, like superspreader event and aerosol droplets; some are packed with cultural meaning, like systemic racism and panic shopping; and others still, like maskne and walktails, are just goofy little turns of phrase that let us find a drop of joy in this disastrous year.

“What’s fascinating about this year is that so many of these words have gone from being words that we had maybe heard of and we might have used very occasionally, but they’ve now gone to basically inform almost every single conversation,” said Fiona McPherson, a new words editor at the Oxford English Dictionary. In more than 20 years at her job, she said, “I can’t think of anything that has been similar.”

The sheer breadth of words that were popularized this year — everything from medical jargon to social-media-friendly shorthand — was particularly unusual, McPherson said. And for the first time since 2004, when Oxford Languages, the publisher of the OED, started choosing a Word of the Year, it declined to pick just one.

We couldn’t pick one, either. But here are some words and phrases we think capture what it felt like to be alive in this unprecedented year of our quar, 2020.

Black Lives Matter

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder and executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, shares her experience with the movement in 2020.

“Every new year brings curiosity and excitement. There is often a collective commitment from people to shed the toxic habits we developed the year before while pushing to unlock the door of possibilities for the year to come. But not a single human being in the entire world would have predicted what came in 2020. The year where Black communities were ravaged by the twin pandemics: state violence and COVID-19. A year in which Black people and our allies rallied around the globe to reckon with 400 years of racial terror.

“These three words, Black Lives Matter, resurrected yet again to help remind the world that our fight for racial justice must happen through mass protests, electoral justice and the fight to defund and ultimately abolish the state of policing and imprisonment as we know it.

“2020 was not a year we all could have prepared for, but it was a year that pushed us to become stronger, demand more from our elected officials and fight for the lives of Black people like we have never done before.”


The passage of time itself became seemingly unreliable this year, as some days felt like a week while some months flew by in an instant. This quickly became a go-to Twitter meme as the combination of a relentless news cycle mixed with the droll, repetitive reality of life in lockdown, giving existence in 2020 a “Groundhog Day”-esque quality.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York made this a recurring bit in his daily coronavirus briefings, and our friends at The Washington Post even started a newsletter called “What Day Is It?”

Circuit breaker

“Markets Spiral as Globe Shudders Over Virus.” So declared a blaring headline atop page A1 of The New York Times on March 10, the day following a drop in the stock market so steep that a so-called “circuit breaker” — an automatic halt in trading after a major decline — kicked in. It was the first since 1997, and over the next nine days it would happen three more times. Some $5 trillion in stock market wealth disappeared by March 10.

For wealthier Americans, the crisis was short-lived: The markets began to bounce back as early as May following the reopening of businesses across the country. That recovery steadily continued through the summer, and, after a few major drops in the fall, the markets hit all-time highs in November.

But that’s just half the story — or, more precisely, about 10% of it, which is the percentage of households that own more than 87% of all stock as of earlier this year.

For everyone else, the economic picture is much more grim: There are still some 10 million fewer jobs than there were in February; employers last month added far fewer jobs than would be needed for a speedy recovery; some jobs may just never come back; and officials have warned that the pandemic may make the already-crippling inequality in the U.S. even worse.

Contact Tracing

Whom did you see and when did you see them? That’s the essence of this term, long familiar to anyone in public health but new to the public consciousness. South Korea gained attention for its aggressive, and highly successful, contact tracing program, while the United States continues to shrug at the concept.


This is the catchall term for consuming bad news or information you know is detrimental to your mental health and wellness yet being unable to stop. “I think the doomscrolling thing validated a lot of people’s experiences,” said journalist Karen Ho, aka “Doomscrolling Reminder Lady,” who helped popularize the term with her nightly Twitter reminders to put the phone away and get to sleep. “It’s easy to feel like, ‘Am I overreacting to everything going on?’” she said. “At night people would scroll and be like, ‘Oh, things are really bad, and if they’re not bad for me they’re bad for other people’ and feel really helpless.”

Essential Workers

By early April, much of the country was under stay-at-home orders, marooned inside and safely out of the virus’s reach ... unless, of course, you happened to work at a grocery store, a gas station, an airport, a hotel, a food processing plant, a restaurant, a convenience store, the Post Office, a child-care center, a farm, a funeral home, a bike repair shop, an auto body shop, for a delivery app or for any of the dozens of other types of businesses that were given permission to remain open during lockdowns.

“We are not essential; we are sacrificial,” Sujatha Gidla, a train conductor with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in New York, wrote in an essay in May.

Flatten the Curve

It was back to middle-school math: To prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, the country needed to reduce the number of virus cases and stop the exponential increase in infections.

After nationwide lockdowns, we were generally successful at flattening the curve of the first surge: Confirmed cases peaked at around 33,000 in one day in mid-April and slowly declined until mid-June. Then the summer surge hit, causing that previously flat line to shoot upward for a month until reaching a second, higher peak in mid-July of about 75,000 cases in a day. After a seasonal low of about 25,000 cases on one day in early September, cases have been on the rise ever since, reaching a recent high of about 230,000 in one day earlier this month.

Front-Line Workers

Danielle Ofri is a primary care doctor at Bellevue Hospital in New York and the author of “When We Do Harm: A Doctor Confronts Medical Error.” Ofri gave me my COVID-19 test when I became the first New York Times employee to test positive, and I turned out to be her first positive case. I’ve invited her to share her experience.

“New York City’s COVID-19 surge in the spring made our hospital feel like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were frantically re-scrambled each day to accommodate yet another set of unprecedented circumstances. On the other hand, it also felt oddly ordinary: In health care, you go to work every day, and your mandate is whatever your patients bring that day. Which is why the ‘hero’ appellation felt so awkward to most of us. Nurses, doctors, technicians, aides and housekeepers surely have put in heroic hours during the pandemic, placing themselves and their families at risk. But we do it every day as patients grapple with the vulnerability that illness engenders. We do it every day when they need to unload their worries and their grief.

“Health care is always front-line work. While COVID-19 was indeed unprecedented, the dominant sense was more of a utilitarian, “Well, this is what the cards have dealt today; let’s get to it.” Don’t get me wrong — the 7 p.m. cheer was the highlight of our days, both listening and participating. It was inspiring to witness our colleagues in action, to be part of this monumental effort. It was equally inspiring to feel the public’s appreciation. But even after COVID-19 is tamed by the forthcoming vaccines, health care workers will still be front-line workers. Because you never know what will show up tomorrow.”


As early as March, President Donald Trump was promoting the malaria drug, saying it could be “one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” By May, he said he was taking it as a preventive measure against the coronavirus. Its sudden prominence showed not only his power to turn conversations to any topic he desires but also the world’s desperate search for anything to help in the fight against the virus. As for the drug itself: The FDA issued, then revoked, emergency use authorization for its use in treating COVID-19, and an analysis from the National Institutes of Health published last month said “researchers concluded that the medication hydroxychloroquine provides no benefit to adults hospitalized with COVID-19.”

Mail-In Ballot

A safe, secure and convenient way to vote, or the primary source of voter fraud in this year’s presidential election. In 2020, you got to decide!


As Americans decided “no thanks” to a genuine, strict and enforced quarantine, we settled for limiting in-person socializing to only a small group of friends and family. Deciding who’s in and who’s out, and trusting those in your pod, wasn’t without drama, but as one health policy researcher told The Times in June: “The ideal thing is that we just stay home forever and never see anybody — but that’s just not sustainable.”


Severe shortages of personal protective equipment for health care workers dominated headlines in the first few months of the pandemic, and now things aren’t much better: The Strategic National Stockpile is nearly 185 million N95 masks short of where it hoped to be by winter.

Masks became yet another symbol in the American culture war: Trump refused to wear one in public until July, even mocking President-elect Joe Biden for doing so during the first presidential debate. Even now, some Republican leaders at the state level are still declining to make masks mandatory.

Remote Learning

Farah Miller, an editor who covers parenting for The Times, shares her family’s experience with remote learning this year.

“Or are they even remotely learning? That was the question I, along with parents across the United States, found myself asking in the spring. Schools shuttered without a plan for how to teach homebound kids. My preschooler was given five worksheets and a list of activities she couldn’t possibly do on her own (“Go for a nature walk and draw what you see!”). Her sister, then in fourth grade, had to watch a litany of instructional videos each day. By noon, the big kid was bleary-eyed; the little one was feral. I was able to get some work done only because my husband was furloughed and became the primary parent.

“We finished the school year from home and thought they’d go back in the fall. By September, there were seemingly impossible decisions to make though: Will you do hybrid? Join a pod? My family didn’t end up having a choice. Our schools didn’t open. My younger daughter started kindergarten from our dining room.

“It is better than it was. Sometimes the house feels alive. I can hear 5-year-old voices on the first floor and fifth graders laughing on the second. All of it is a window into their lives I never would have had. We really are the lucky ones.

“But there is always a kid calling for me. They drag their laptops around, to the couch or bed or just sit on the stairs, trying to get comfortable in a situation they are not made for. The corners of every room have been overrun by academic detritus. Screen time is all the time. These kids may be learning now, but they are so far from where they are meant to be.”

Social Distancing

The pandemic forced us to re-evaluate our relationship with physical space and the way in which we occupy it. As experts learned more about the spread of the virus, “6 feet” became the golden number: The distance we should stay away from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19, yes, but also a shorthand for how to navigate socialization in the new world.


The first time most of us became aware of the term was this spring, when one person who attended a March choir practice in Washington state spread the virus to 52 others. According to Google Trends data, search interest in the term has stayed low for most of the year — that is, until the beginning of October. Interest spiked after the infamous Rose Garden “superspreader” event at the White House, which is thought to have accelerated the spread of the virus among Trump’s inner circle and beyond.


In early weeks genuinely descriptive, this quickly became an unavoidable, hollow buzzword co-opted by advertisements and TV commercials starting in mid-April.

The word’s popularity waned, but it rose to prominence yet again as Trump and his Republican allies launched a campaign to overturn the results of the election.

Even Oxford Languages subtly tipped its hand when it titled its report on the language that defined the year, “2020: Words of an Unprecedented Year.”

Virtual happy hour

The early weeks of lockdown, like the virus itself, were novel. As people searched for new ways to stay entertained and hold onto some semblance of normalcy from home, the question of how to socialize was paramount. And so virtual happy hours became the event du jour. The wine — and quarantinis — flowed as heavily as the Zoom event invites, and we all ... well, we just got kind of drunk in front of our computers a whole bunch.

Voter Fraud

It doesn’t exist on any appreciable scale, but widespread fraudulent voting, the president and his allies have continued to insist, cost him the election.

That the claim is pure fantasy is almost beside the point: The president’s disinformation campaign around the results of the election is the culmination of a yearslong effort to sow doubt about the democratic process itself. If the voting system is corrupt, any loss Trump may suffer is simply the result of a rigged election, the thinking goes. This false narrative has become so deeply embedded in the minds of Trump’s supporters that surveys have found that 70% to 80% of Republicans doubt the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.


While the coronavirus raged across the world, the West Coast burned. 2020 was the worst year for wildfires in recorded California history, as some 4.3 million acres went up in flames. In Oregon, more than 1 million acres burned. And in Washington, the devastation reached more than 700,000 acres. More than 40 people died in the fires. The economic toll in California is thought to be at least $10 billion. And, as The Times wrote in the midst of last year’s wildfire season, this level of destruction is probably just a normal we’ll have to learn to live with.


Up until around March, Zoom was enterprise software meant to help businesses communicate. Then the home became the office for millions of Americans, and our social lives moved entirely online. Almost overnight Zoom emerged as the go-to platform for private citizens, religious services and universities. “We Live in Zoom Now,” The Times declared. The term became synonymous with videoconferencing.

But privacy concerns arose, and Zoombombing became a thing as malicious trolls hijacked meetings. The company rushed to address the issues, and its CEO conceded that the company wasn’t prepared for the sudden crush of use.

Still, Zoom ends 2020 as one of a handful of pandemic “winners”: Its stock price skyrocketed nearly 500% from January to December, and Yahoo Finance named it the 2020 Company of the Year.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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