Keeping climate on the tip of our tongues

What the “Word of the Year” selections tell us about global warming

(Photo credit: Jesse Karjalainen; license: CC BY-SA 3.0)

For language geeks such as myself, this is an exciting time of year. The reason: It’s when the big players in the dictionary business — from Oxford to Merriam-Webster — unveil their word (or expression) of the year. Call it the linguistic Oscars.

These choices are telling because the winners tend to embody the zeitgeist that’s enveloped the English-speaking world over the past 12 months. Often these words represent cultural trends. For example, the American Dialect Society went with “Not!” (as in “just kidding”) in 1992 and “metrosexual” in 2003. But when times are more somber, so are the terms we bandy about.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that COVID-19 was at the center of the 2020 language pageant. Merriam-Webster chose “pandemic” for its word, while the Collins English Dictionary opted for “lockdown.” The American Dialect Society went simply with “Covid” (although its 2016 winner — “dumpster fire” — probably deserved a repeat victory).

Undoubtedly, everyone wants to put those terms in the rearview mirror early in 2021. But once we have, what are the next words that will shape our conversations?

In 2019, the climate crisis dominated the English language. Collins’ word of the year was “climate strike” and Oxford went with “climate emergency.” This wasn’t the first time in recent memory that the environment took the linguistic center stage. Collins chose “single-use” (as in plastics) in 2018, Oxford’s “U.S. Word of the Year” in 2006 was “carbon-neutral” and Merriam-Webster simply picked “science” in 2013.

While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly merited being on all our lips this past year, it’s incumbent on us all to make sure that once we beat the pandemic, we push climate change back to the top of the talking agenda.

As we learned earlier this month, 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. This occurred despite the La Niña conditions during the year, which led to temporary cooling in parts of the world. Eight of the 10 hottest years in recorded history have now occurred in the past decade — and each of the past five years are in the top five.

So, while the front-and-center language may have changed in 2020, the threat of global warming has not, which likely means climate change will find its way back to the top of our talking agenda in 2021.

“There are signs that attention is turning back towards the climate crisis,” according to Oxford Languages’ 2020 report entitled Words of an Unprecedented Year. “Climate and related terms are becoming more frequent again, while net zero … is also on the rise.”

Assuming that climate does return to the forefront of our lexicon, the next important question should be: What message do we want people to convey when the subject is once again a word-of-the-year candidate?

Based on interviews with experts, the environmental trade publication E&E recently said that “adaptation” and “resilience” are likely contenders.

“I have been struck by the growing frequency with which ‘resilience’ is employed in a number of circles,” University of Michigan environmental policy professor Barry Rabe told E&E. “It has elements of adaptation in it, and I think how we respond to the challenge of climate change in the coming years, whether it’s coastal restoration or flood protection or anything else will be paramount.”

No doubt, Rabe has a point. Between historic wildfires and hurricanes, we will have no choice but, to some degree, deal with the consequences of our past actions (or in some cases, inactions) and prepare for future difficulties.

However, that doesn’t mean we can’t chart a better path buoyed by more optimistic language. With seven states and more than 150 cities pledging to power themselves with clean energy, one-third of Americans now live in a place committed to 100 percent clean or renewable energy by 2050 or sooner. That should give us all hope that, when climate returns to the tip of our tongues, we can aim to make “climate victory” or “clean energy reality” a winning phrase in the near future.



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Josh Chetwynd

Josh Chetwynd


Communications for The Public Interest Network, Environment America and U.S. PIRG; book author: ; avid curler/ex-baseball player