20 Words for 2020

“Existential” and “emergency” defined 2019. Thank you, next.

Dec 17, 2019 · 5 min read

Awards season is here. So is the time for dictionaries, the self-appointed gatekeepers of language, to make their annual picks of the most popular words that became part of our lexicon.

If 2019’s winners are any indicator, we’re not jazzed about 2020. Dictionary.com chose existential to describe the threat we face as society and a species. Oxford went with climate emergency as the “defining issue of our time.” Collins saw a hundred-fold uptick in the use climate strike, due in no small part to the hundreds of environmental protests around the world inspired by a single Swedish schoolgirl just over a year ago. The only word with even the slightest degree of optimism came from Merriam-Webster, which chose they for its emerging use as a gender-neutral pronoun and its influence in evolving the English language.

With entire societal constructs being challenged, governments being toppled, democracy fraying at the edges and human survival hanging in the balance, 2019 didn’t exactly spark joy. In 2020 the stakes will only get higher.

Looking back isn’t our style. That’s why instead of a single word from the past year, we picked several for the next. Here are 20 words worth watching in 2020.

1. Unpredictability

Ben, Creative Director

Nothing is set in stone.
Uncertainty reigns.
But everything is up for grabs.
Hold tight.

2. Subversive

Wednesday, Design Director

If 2019 has be a year of inquiry, 2020 is set up to be a year of action. 2020 is going to be a display of the power grassroots movements can have. We’re going to stop questioning the status quo and start establishing what’s next.

3. Extreme

Roe, Consultant

This year has been a year where I experienced feelings and events on both ends of the political, professional, personal and emotional spectrum. There was very little middle ground. You were in or out; hot or cold; red or blue; them or us.

4. Ready

Tom, Chief Executive

Because waiting no longer cuts it.

5. Send It

Adam, Senior Designer

Everything feels endangered, from our democracy to our privacy and our planet. Whether you still question climate change or not, our resources are limited on the planet. Our phones are listening. The US is one of the least free “free” nations. Instead of recognizing the problems, it’s time to SEND IT.

6. Soul

Phil, Senior Srategist

There’s been a lot of interesting language around the soul of a city or a nation needing to be reclaimed, or saved from itself. Pixar is releasing a new animated feature entitled Soul in 2020. Questions of the soul will be front and center as we witness incredible feats of the human spirit with multiple space missions and Olympic contests.

7. Transformation

Chris, Chief Operating Officer

The social, cultural, environmental imperative to change the direction of the world.

8. Delete

Matty, Senior Designer

With an overdramatized political climate and concerns over the security of how we receive candidate information, now seems like the perfect time to shut down my social media. This political season should be focused on in-person, constructive engagements rather than viral and impulsive newsfeeds.

9. Refresh

Samantha, Design Director

It has been an exhaustive year on all fronts. Anyone you ask is ready for a fresh start, not to erase the crucial learnings of 2019, but to better prepare themselves for what’s to come in 2020.

10. Clarity

Dylan, Integrated Brand Strategist

Over the last three years we’ve seen a rise of movements, marches, protests and other outlets of activism, calling for change in the way our society treats itself and its women, young people, people of color, LGBTQ+ and planet. What happens in 2020 will speak volumes about how we really feel about these issues, and reflect the actual impact from all of this newfound action and awareness. Now more than ever, it will be abundantly clear where we stand on the future of our country and our world, with all the cards out on the table for everyone to see.

11. Decency

Johan, Art Director

Because there is such a lack of it and we need it more than ever.

12. Anti-Woke

Shivani, Cultural Strategist

Cancel culture is cancelled. Internet outrage isn’t activism and social media doesn’t always beget social justice. 2020 will see society organize into two camps — those who stay woke and those wary of wokeness.

13. Authenticity

Sarah, Senior Designer

In a world experienced through screens, scripted narratives and avatars, authenticity feels unattainable. Here’s hoping 2020 unveils the digital fabric that cloaks us.

14. Better

Jason, Experimental Designer

2020 is the year of the presidential election — not only in the United States but also in Taiwan, where I am from. The results of both elections will impact my rights, freedom and future. I hope next year will be better, everything will be better, and I will be better.

15. Miraitowa

Whitney, Producer

Our 2020 Olympics mascot, but I might adopt them as a totem for the entire year. mirai = future. towa = eternity. Miratowa’s personality is based on the Japanese proverb, “Learn from the past and develop new ideas”.

16. Change

Katie, Account Manager

2020 is the start of a new decade, so there’s bound to be changes with that alone, including how we will be saying the year for the next decade. Everything will start with “twenty twenty ___.” But I think there will be so much buzz about potential change in the White House, climate change, and even further change in the MeToo movement.

17. Fortitude

Martha, Client Services Director

We are seeing it in Hong Kong, Chile, France, Iraq — around the world. And we need more of it in order to face what’s coming in 2020.

18. Responsibility

Jessie, Managing Director

We’re entering the third decade of the 21st century, which had me asking, how would we define the past two? The violence and crises of the 2000’s brought about a heightened awareness of Safety: what it means, why we need it, and what we will do to secure it. The 2010’s have been marked by Connection, sharpened by the influence of social media and the meteoric rise of tech. As we enter the 2020’s I hope the decade will be defined by Responsibility, the understanding of both the individual and collective impact of our actions.

19. Hindsight

Lauren, Studio Coordinator

Not just a play on words! But a revisit of what we learned in 2019, from the very good to the shockingly bad, and how that knowledge will (or won’t) affect the way we live, work, shop, travel, vote, etc. in 2020. What choices will we make in the coming year, knowing what we know now?

20. Woof

Mo, Canine-in-Residence

An honorary mention from Sam’s pup and ThoughtMatter’s resident fur baby, who gets the last word anyway.

ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.


ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio with an artful perspective


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ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio with an artful perspective www.thoughtmatter.com | thinking@thoughtmatter.com


ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio with an artful perspective

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