“[…] it is not a word of the year to celebrate
but it is, perhaps, one that sums up the year for most of the world.”
Helen Newstead, language content consultant at Collins Dictionary
Collins Dictionary’s word of the year for 2020
This past year has given us many new words and new meanings/understandings for words – most of which we would rather not have known. From George Floyd and BLM to COVID-19, social distancing, quarantine, and “flatten the curve” to Dominion and irregularities, some terms this year have fully run the gamut of emotions, often involving anger, fear, worry and, in many cases, a feeling of despondence. Certainly, there is a compelling argument to be made for any of these terms. Perhaps the one chosen by Collins Dictionary as word-of-the-year, due to the global usage and impact it has had, is the most appropriate. Naturally, skyrocketing from 4,000 usages in 2019 to more than 250,000 this year, we are talking about lockdown.
For the last 10 months and potentially into the near-term future, this single word impacts how we work, how we shop, and how we socialise with one another. However, it did not use to be like this.
Lockdowns before Covid-19
Breaking the term down into its components, lock, from the Old English loc and the Proto-Germanic lukana, is simply understood as a ‘means of fastening’ something, like a bolt or a lid, while down, from the late Old English ofdune, means ‘downwards or in a descending direction’. In other words, the definition of the terms is, quite literally, ‘holding something in place’.
The idea of combining these terms and holding something in place originated in North America, where the initial meaning related to ‘a piece of wood used in the construction of rafts when transporting timber downriver’. This can be seen in a law passed by the Maine State Legislature in 1832 which states: “That it shall be the duty of said corporation [SUGAR-ISLAND SIDE BOOM COMPANY] to raft all lumber in said boom without any unnecessary delay, securely and faithfully with suitable poles and lock-downs.”
Though the original use and meaning can still be found, the application of the term to holding humans in place would take another 150 years and an act of violence: following a prison incident in 1973, the Fresno (California) Bee reported that: “A full-scale lockdown […] was imposed immediately after the knifing.”
Of course, from this initial usage, the term propagated as a means of expressing the containment of or isolation from a potential problem, with the first usage in the realm of public safety being found in the December 16, 1984 edition of The Arizona Republic writing that: “They instituted a ‘security lockdown’ at the PUREX plant Monday when a can containing […] plutonium sludge was found to be missing.”
From specific application to mainstream use
2020, however, has seen the word being taken to new and dizzying heights, affecting virtually everyone. To put it another way, as Helen Newstead, language content consultant at Collins Dictionary, suggests: “[…] it is not a word of the year to celebrate but it is, perhaps, one that sums up the year for most of the world.”
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