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20 words we learned to use in 2020 that helped define the year

Kelsey Bradshaw
Austin American-Statesman
We picked 20 words or phrases that took on new meaning in 2020. Clockwise from top left: PPE [Lola Gomez/American-Statesman]; Protests to defund the police [Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman]; Poll watcher [Bob Daemmrich for American-Statesman]; remote learning [Ana Ramirez/American-Statesman]; sourdough [Ricardo B. Brazziell/ American-Statesman]; Zoom meeting [Lake Travis Libraries]; Toilet paper shortage, [Nell Carroll/American-Statesman]. Center: Joe Exotic [Nate Billings/The Oklahoman]

The past year has been a hellish, eye-opening yet sometimes inspiring one for Central Texans and everyone else around the world. (Aren't you so happy it's almost over?)

So much happened that defined 2020, including a pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans, a reckoning of racism and police brutality, and a historic election.

As we close the year for good, here are 20 words or phrases we learned to use in 2020:

Animal Crossing

A highly addictive video game that has been around for years, was taken up by many as a quarantine activity. You can go fishing and invite other players to your yard, like it used to be in the before-times.

Coronavirus

This may be the most significant word we learned this year. The common cold and some familiar flus, we learned, are coronaviruses. But this new virus became known as THE coronavirus. And the word turned out to be synonymous with grief as we watched our loved ones suffer and sometimes die. It meant not being able to hug our friends and family. It meant people losing their jobs. As we look forward to 2021, we hope vaccines will help end the pandemic and turn the virus into just a coronavirus.

Defund the police

After the death of George Floyd, a Black man in Minnesota who on Memorial Day suffocated when his neck was pinned under the knee of a white police officer for almost nine minutes, protests and rallies against racism and police violence broke out across the nation. The rallying cry of many protesters revolved around "defunding the police," which proponents say isn't about erasing police budgets but redirecting police spending to tackle the roots of crime, like mental health care and education. In August, Austin's City Council voted to remove $150 million from Austin police's budget.

Doomscrolling

Coined by Quartz reporter Karen Ho, doomscrolling is when you endlessly browse social media feeds. It's like binge-watching TV, but instead of enjoying a show, you spend hours devouring bad news. It happens when you wake up and just before bed. Doomscrolling became especially relevant in 2020 as we often found ourselves with nothing to do other than to scroll. 

Finger condom/finger cot

Voting during a pandemic meant standing in spaced out lines and taking a spot of hand sanitizer with your ballot at the booths. But the real novelty, other than historically massive voter turnout for the presidential election, was the one-fingered rubber glove to use on touch screens to allay fears of catching the coronavirus. 

Flatten the curve

As the coronavirus pandemic intensified in Central Texas and across the U.S. in March, officials and health experts called for residents to stay home and help "flatten the curve" depicted in graphs showing an increase in coronavirus cases. Flattening the curve means taking action to alter the upward trend. Health experts urged people to mask up, social distance and practice good hygiene to flatten the rise in new cases and new hospitalizations.

Furlough

Americans faced record unemployment this year during the pandemic. Many businesses, including the nation's airlines and many restaurants, introduced worker furloughs for the first time. For some, furloughs become a cruel imitation of joblessness: Workers remain employed but they aren't allowed to work or earn any pay. Furloughs can be short, like a week, or can last for months.

Less-lethal

Less-lethal is a phrase used by police to describe weapons or munitions like bean bag rounds, tear gas, stun guns and other devices considered not as deadly as firearms. Often used by police during summer protests across the country and in Austin, the weapons were at the center of multiple excessive force lawsuits filed against police.

Karen

You know those videos of a woman screaming at grocery store workers after being told she has to put on a mask or leave the store? That is a Karen. A Karen, in its most common use, is often applied to a white woman weaponizing her privilege against a person of color. In May, Christian Cooper, a Black birder, was in Central Park in New York City and asked a white woman, Amy Cooper, to put a leash on her dog. Amy Cooper can be seen in a viral video calling the police and telling them an African American man was threatening her. Many considered Amy Cooper to be a Karen.

Murder hornets

When we thought the year couldn't get any crazier, murder hornets, a giant Asian species of hornet, arrived. Murder hornets are an invasive species that kill honeybees and can be deadly to humans. They showed up in May

PPE

This is probably the most important acronym of the year! Personal protective equipment includes all the gear health care workers, first responders and other essential employees donned to stay safe from the coronavirus. This includes face masks, gloves and face shields.

Poll watcher

Worried about election integrity after President Donald Trump said widespread voting fraud would happen on Election Day, many became self-appointed "poll watchers" and stood outside polling places. 

Quarantine

Originally, it referred to the 40 days that ships thought to be carrying disease in 17th-century Italy were required to be isolated. For Americans now, the coronavirus pandemic turned 40 days of isolation into 280 days and counting of waiting for the pandemic to end. It means social distancing, less non-essential shopping trips and wearing face masks. 

Remote/virtual

We did it all virtually and remotely this year. Learning remotely, working remotely, going to the doctor remotely, partying with friends remotely and seeing loved ones for the holidays remotely all became part of the norm.  

Sourdough starter

Ahh, remember baking? So much baking, really so much, occurred at the start of the pandemic. If you have social media, it was likely you'd see a freshly baked sourdough bread or banana bread in March and April as Central Texans turned to the kitchen to keep themselves occupied in between daily walks. 

Social distance

Do you remember hugging your friends? To help stop the spread of the coronavirus, Austinites were urged to keep 6 feet of distance between them and others. This meant standing 6 feet apart in grocery and pharmacy lines. Friend hangouts turned into picnics with people spread out. Instead of hanging out inside, many Austinites took to their yards to keep their distance with friends and family. 

Tiger King

As we all sat at home in the first days of quarantine in the spring, we learned about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin and tigers. Lots of tigers. A Netflix documentary called "Tiger King" told the tale of a man named Joe Exotic, who ran a tiger zoo and was accused of hiring someone to kill Baskin, his nemesis in the world of big-cat sanctuaries. 

Toilet paper shortage

As people prepared to stay home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in March, it seems we misunderstood what staying home actually meant and decided to scoop up all the toilet paper. Grocery store aisles once full of toilet paper, bleach wipes and hand sanitizer were bare as people stocked up. Stores soon limited how much toilet paper a person could buy and supplies eventually got back to normal.

WFH

For many white-collar employees, the concept of "working from home" on a quasi-permanent basis was new in March as many government and business offices, and most of the nation's smaller employers, shut down to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. WFH meant having your cat instead of your boss interrupting you at your desk. It meant negotiating with barking dogs and loud children instead of an obnoxious co-worker. Yes, days tended to blur together while WFH, but it's been nine months since we started — and some of us don't want to go back. 

Zoom

Trying to remember life before Zoom video chats is like trying to get through rush hour on Interstate 35 in a good mood. You can't! As businesses and schools sent people home because of the coronavirus, Zoom became the go-to service to hold virtual meetings and classes. Birthdays, happy hours, weddings and funerals were often held over Zoom in 2020. Alerting someone that they were on mute was commonplace and became the virtual equivalent of telling someone their fly was open.