Word of the year is distinctly Australian, distinctly 2020, but what is it?

Michael Weaver 17 November 2020 5
the 2020 words of the year with a diary in background

No surprises the 2020 words of the year were related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Michael Weaver.

The 2020 word of the year was always going to be a keen contest between COVID-related phrases, and in the end iso took the prize as the Australian National Dictionary Centre’s word of the year.

Officially, the definition of Iso is “self-isolation; the act of remaining apart from others as a way to limit the spread of an infectious disease, especially as a public health measure”.

From a very long list of pandemic-related terms, the Centre, based at the Australian National University, picks a word or expression that has gained prominence in the Australian social landscape.

Surprisingly, the term socially distanced didn’t make the cut.


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Senior researcher Mark Gwynn says that among the hundreds of pandemic-related terms collected by the Centre, iso stood out as a characteristically Aussie abbreviation.

“Our fondness for abbreviating words in Australia, and a natural human inclination to make the unknown and scary familiar, quickly saw the descriptive term ‘self-isolation’ shortened to iso in March this year,” Mr Gwynn said.

“Not only is iso distinctively Australian in usage, but it has also been linguistically productive by combining with other words to form compounds such as iso baking, iso bar, iso cut and iso fashion.

“Many of us found humour in language use as a way to cope with our changed working and social circumstances, so why not talk about a bad self-inflicted haircut as an iso cut, or the extra weight gained due to lack of exercise as iso kilos.

Iso takes the word of the year mantle from the 2019 word of the year voice, defined as “a formal channel for Indigenous input into the making of laws and policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

Canberra couple bump elbows during their COVID wedding.

You may now bump elbows. Newlyweds Doug Boyd and Dimity Douglas during their COVID-19 wedding ceremony in April (yes, Doug did kiss the bride). Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The words on the shortlist reflect the impact of the pandemic in 2020, with only one word chosen that was not related to the virus and its effects.

The full 2020 shortlist includes:

  • Black Summer: the summer of 2019/2020, during which catastrophic bushfires occurred in south-eastern Australia.
  • bubble: a district, region, or a group of people viewed as a closed system, isolating from other districts, regions, or groups as a public health measure to limit the spread of COVID-19. ‘Bubble’ was also found in compounds such as ‘travel bubble’, ‘germ bubble’ and ‘sporting bubble’.
  • covid-normal: a state of adapting to an acceptable level of COVID-19 in the community.
  • driveway: used in compounds referring to individual Anzac Day vigils in 2020, such as ‘driveway Anzac service’, ‘driveway dawn service’.

The Australian National Dictionary Centre undertakes research into Australian English in partnership with Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand, and edits Oxford’s Australian dictionaries.

Do you agree with the Australian National Dictionary Centre? Leave your ‘word of the year’ suggestion in the comments section.


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5 Responses to Word of the year is distinctly Australian, distinctly 2020, but what is it?
Acton Acton 7:28 am 18 Nov 20

Literally. Particularly misuse of.

Sally Tregellas Wodzinska Sally Tregellas Wodzinska 3:27 pm 17 Nov 20

Bubble now has more meanings

Judith Scerri Judith Scerri 2:48 pm 17 Nov 20

"Unprecedented"

Stephen Saunders Stephen Saunders 2:31 pm 17 Nov 20

I know I should get out more often, but “iso” (in this sense) has barely penetrated my own personal COVID “bubble”.

Linda Stapleton Linda Stapleton 1:44 pm 17 Nov 20

You don't want my word for the year... it is rather impolite

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