Chapel Address: Tuesday 24 November 2020   |  By: Louise North, Principal and Head of the Senior School

The Oxford English Dictionary announced its words of the year yesterday.

The words they choose each year reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations of the passing year and have, they believe, lasting potential as a term of cultural significance.

Normally they choose just one word, and over the last five years, they have chosen the following:

  • Emoji (2015)
  • Post-truth (2016)
  • Youthquake (2017)
  • Toxic (2018)
  • Climate Emergency (2019)

This year, they have been unable to choose just one word, and instead have chosen a selection of words that they feel sum up the year. The words they have chosen reflect the phenomenal breadth change and development of language over the year.

So their words of the Year reflect a variety of events:

Bushfire to Impeachment, from COVID-19 to Social Distancing, from Black Lives Matter to Mail-in (the use of postal votes in the US), from Moonshot to Superspreader.

Thanks to COVID-19, less commonly used words, or indeed completely new phrases have have now become part and parcel of our everyday vocabulary as we talk of “unprecedented” times, the “R number”, “furlough” the pandemic”, and the “lockdown”.

A “circuit breaker” is no longer just something you learn about in Physics, a “bubble” is no longer something you just make with washing up liquid, a “face mask” is no longer part of your beauty routine and a “spike” is no longer something you might associate with a hedgehog. PPE used to be something you studied at university and waiting to be admitted into a conversation is something we have all had to get used to.

Our existence in the virtual world has led to many of us putting our hands up politely once again, repeatedly unmuting ourselves and seriously considering the purchase of a zoom suit. Words such as flattening the curve, remote and front line have all take on a new meaning.

Even though 93% of our communication is non-verbal, we all know that words are powerful and can both lift and deflate an audience in a heartbeat. Whether that audience is you, reading a book or a crowd being addressed at a presidential rally. Whether it is the words of a song or a poem or a poster or an email or a text.

I love words and I have a few favourites that bring me joy purely because of the sound they make. So, here are a few of my very favourites:

  • Paraphernalia
  • Hirsute
  • Shoddy
  • Sacapuntas
  • Millefeuille
  • Genau

And while I am at it, I also love…

  • Gubbins
  • Blubber
  • Discombobulated
  • Shenanigans

Another thing that I love about words is that they sometimes change meaning depending on whether they are being used as a verb or a noun, or depending on which syllable you emphasise.

For example,

  • I will console you because your console is broken
  • Are you content with the content of your essay?
  • She was incensed by his use of incense
  • They were present when I gave him my present
  • I would never subject you to a chapel address on a boring subject

…and so it goes on.

Where does my love of words come from? I think it is essentially from my love of languages. I studied French and Spanish at university but also studied Italian, German and Latin at school. Sometimes I find it easier to express my thoughts or emotions in French than I do in English. I love finding links between Latin and Spanish in particular. I love the cross over between languages, the fact that English is peppered with words from across the globe, whether that is:

  • Ab initio or bona fide
  • En masse or en route
  • Laissez faire or nom de plume
  • Gratis or pro rata
  • Tortilla or buckaroo
  • Aficionado or fiesta
  • Doppelganger or edelweiss or farenheit
  • Macho or nada or hasta la vista baby

Whatever you think of the words that I have shared with you today, I hope that you have an opinion. Maybe you like my words or maybe you have favourites of your own. I’d love to know what they are. And reading is my way of indulging my love of words. Sometimes it’s a book, sometimes a journal, sometimes it’s trivia, sometimes it’s serious stuff. Whatever you read, just keep on reading and grow to love the words…

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