New words and old words made new

The tumultuous changes that humanity has undergone over the past year have forever altered not only the way we live, work and relate with our family, friends, and co-workers, but also how we experience and talk about this new reality. The English language has had to adapt quickly and repeatedly both to new words and to old words with new meanings. The vocabularies of environment, science and technology, gender politics and social activism, entertainment, remote living and working, and health – especially health – have all expanded because of the many tremendous and nearly simultaneous changes that have impacted the entire world. Herewith, then, some of the newest and most interesting.

For years, scientists have talked about “global warming” and “climate change” but, according to environmental activists, a new term – climate emergency – is a more accurate description of the situation.

Still in the field of environment, we find carbon sink, a natural phenomenon (such as oceans, soil and plants) that absorbs more carbon than it releases as carbon dioxide. While you’ve surely heard of the “carbon footprint”, plastic footprint describes the amount of plastic a person uses and then throws away in terms of the environmental damage this causes. And the new movement to reduce food waste has led to freegan, which describes someone who eats only food that is free or that would otherwise be thrown away.

Recent years have seen an explosion in the technology used in our daily lives, but quarantines and self-isolation have brought even faster changes into our lives, and screen time has replaced many of the personal interactions we used to have. In fact, the term screen time once described the amount of time an actor or product would appear on TV. Nowadays, it more likely refers to the amount of time a user spends looking at the screen of an electronic device. Some viewers become so obsessed with the programmes they watch that they become stans (stalker-fans) or so dependent on their mobile that they suffer from nomophobia, or the fear of being without or unable to use it.

So much technology (and free time on the hands of its users) has given us to the phenomenon of deepfakes (images or recordings of a person that have been digitally altered using artificial intelligence, producing fabricated images or sounds that seem to be real) of stars such as Sylvester Stallone and Robert DeNiro, politicians such as Barak Obama and Boris Johnson, and even the Queen of England.

Gender politics, identity, and social activism have been important topics over the past year, and news terms have emerged to describe new concepts in these areas, including BIPOC, which stands for “Black, Indigenous and People of Colour”, child-free, a non-negative way of describing people who were once called “childless”, and peoplekind, a gender-neutral alternative to “mankind” not devoid of controversy. Changing attitudes towards gender fluidity have given us they/them, used for people with non-binary gender identities instead of “he/she” and “his/hers”, and the desire to express inclusiveness has brought us folx, which seeks to explicitly express the inclusion of commonly marginalised groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought new meaning to old words. Long hauler once used to describe a long-distance trucker or lorry driver, but now also refers to a person experiencing long-term effects from a serious illness (such as COVID-19) after initial recovery or improvement. In the context of sport, bubble refers to an area offering accommodation and amenities in which teams remain isolated from the public during a series of matches to avoid exposure to and transmission of disease, while pod describes a small group of friends, family, colleagues or classmates who have regular contact but limit contact with others for the same purpose. You’ll definitely want to avoid fomites, objects that may be contaminated with infectious organisms and function in their transmission such as doorknobs, garments, and dishes. The term circuit-breaker in the context of the pandemic was first used by Singapore’s government to describe a stringent set of preventive measures collectively designed to halt transmission of COVID-19 and prevent the need for lockdowns (curfews, quarantines, and similar restrictions).

While some might turn to drink in the current situation, others are sober-curious and experiment with not drinking alcohol for a period. Still others might create an ambiance of hygge – the Danish term for cosiness and conviviality that create a feeling of contentment or well-being in order to enjoy life’s pleasures with good people – to flex (brag or show off) about and share with members of their pod.

English is a rich and adaptive language whose speakers not only invent new words and give new meanings to old ones, but also welcome words from other languages with open arms. However, not all of these new terms and concepts will have staying power. Technological and social advances will make machines, devices, and concepts obsolete, and the words that describe them will drop out of use. While we welcome words like “hygge”, it’s a safe bet that most of us hope that others, such as “lockdown” and “long hauler”, cease to exist because they’re no longer needed.