Lockdown is word of the year, but is it the most important?

Sam Wood
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How does a word become 'Word of the Year'?

Following the news that the Collins Dictionary has announced “lockdown” as word of the year for 2020, Dr Laura Bailey, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics considered if it was the most important. She said:

‘”Lockdown” entered our vocabulary in a big way in early spring this year. Before that, most of us either didn’t use it at all or it was associated with specific contexts such as a measure for controlling prison populations.

‘The way that it’s absorbed into our vocabularies without any explicit learning process is a type of “accommodation”; we encounter a new word and associate it with a new concept, and as long as there’s no obvious evidence to the contrary, we’ve learnt a new word whose meaning we all agree on. It gets more complicated if the concepts and words are only subtly different, which is why you might have had conversations about what “self-isolation” and “quarantine” actually mean. “Quarantine’ comes from the French for ‘forty’ and fortunately we don’t have to take that etymology literally.

‘Another word on the shortlist was “BLM”, which is of course an abbreviation for the three words Black Lives Matter. For linguists, and for dictionary makers, this counts as a word. Lexicographers are concerned with whether a phrase has a meaning distinct from its component parts, making it a lexical item. In this case, while it does have the compositional meaning that Black lives matter, it also names a protest movement and an attitude, a social change towards antiracism, beyond simply the literal meaning of that sentence.

‘Those who respond with “white lives matter” or “all lives matter” are responding only to the literal meaning and not to the bigger picture meaning.’

Dr Laura Bailey is interested in formal analysis of non-standard syntax and is currently investigating the omission of prepositions in several varieties of English (including the Kentish dialect). She also maintains an interest in particles, questions, negation and disjunction. Her research is parametric and cross-linguistic in nature. 

Laura welcomes enquiries from those working in a generative syntax framework, and especially projects within the areas of non-standard syntax, questions, or comparative syntax.

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