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A year in words

A year in words
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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 worldwide, 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.

Pandemic

Pandemic
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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 Australia was the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. And while it was certainly serious – claiming the lives of 191 people in Australia, according to the Department of Health – 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.

Find out what a Covid-19 scientist has to say about a vaccine.

Public health

Public health
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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 behaviours can impact other people’s health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Foundation defines ‘public health’ as ‘the science of protecting and improving the health of people and their communities.’  And according to Dr Amelia Burke-Garcia, 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.”

PPE

PPE
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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 linguist, Dr Karen Stollznow, 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.

Don’t miss these 10 facts that will convince you to wear a face mask.

Social distancing

Social distancing
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Back in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, public health officials, 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 1.5 metres. 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 socialising 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 socialise virtually, or from at least 1.5 metres away from others.

Read on to find out how to handle social distancing rule breakers.

Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter
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The organisation 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 recognise that inequity to bring an end to it.”

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Contactless

Contactless
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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 realising 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 curb-side pick up for shopping,” Stollznow tells Reader’s Digest. Even though contactless payment options in some stores and touchless taps 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.

Virtue signalling

Virtue signalling
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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 signalling,’ and is most closely associated with posts on social media by individuals, companies, or organisations, 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.”

Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude
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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 favourite 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 per cent on October 2nd, following the announcement that President Donal Trump and first lady, Melania, both tested positive for COVID-19.

Karen

Karen
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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 behaviour, 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 non-existent) 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.”

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