Our world in words: What this year’s dictionary entries and updates say about who we are and where we’re going

El Paso News

In this Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, photo taken through a camera lens the word “pandemic” in seen in a dictionary in Washington. Dictionary.com declared “pandemic” its 2020 word of the year. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The language we use matters today more than ever as we find ourselves in a world where our words matter as much as our actions.

In sociolinguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis says that the structure of a language determines the speaker’s perception and experience, meaning words can shape a person’s whole world.

The Eskimo have many words for “snow” because their language requires it, the same way English speakers use words like “rain,” “sleet,” “snow,” and “hail” to represent different forms of precipitation in the English lexicon. 

This week, Dictionary.com added more than 400 words that focus on race identity and the COVID-19 pandemic, which paves the way for people to have conversations that heretofore have been difficult to express in part because the linguistic structure lacked the appropriate words.

“We have added such terms as ‘BIPOC,’ ‘Critical Race Theory‘ and ‘overpolice,’ which have risen to the top of the national discourse on social justice,” said John Kelly, managing editor of Dictionary.com in a statement. “Another significant decision was to remove the noun ‘slave’ when referring to people, instead using the adjective ‘enslaved’ or referring to the institution of slavery. This is part of our ongoing efforts to ensure we represent people on Dictionary.com with due dignity and humanity.”

In addition to new terms and phrases, Dictionary.com made updates to existing words that it says is part of its mission to represent people with dignity and humanity.

For example, an edit was made to capitalize the first letter in Indigenous in reference to the original inhabitants of a region or religion, as well as their descendants. 

Cultural terms that reflect the COVID-19 pandemic were also added that include “doomscrolling” and, of course, “Zoom.” 

To see how our words (and world) have evolved over the last 12 months, check out a selection of the added and updated terms with their definitions below:

Race and identity terms

AAL – An acronym for African American Language.

Antiracism – A belief that rejects “supremacy of one racial group over another and promotes racial equality in society.”

BIPOC – An acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

Chile – “A phonetic spelling of child, representing dialectal speech of the Southern United States or African American Vernacular English.”

Critical Race Theory – “A conceptual framework that considers the impact of historical laws and social structures on the present-day perpetuation of racial inequality.”

Finna – “A phonetic spelling representing the African American Vernacular English variant of ‘fixing to,’ a phrase commonly used in Southern U.S. dialects to mark the immediate future while indicating preparation or planning already in progress.”

Reparation – “Monetary or other compensation payable by a country to an individual for a historical wrong.”

Structural racism – Also called institutional racism or systemic racism, this refers to a policy or system of government that is rooted in racism

COVID-19 and culture terms

Doomscrolling – “The practice of obsessively checking online news for updates, especially on social media feeds, with the expectation that the news will be bad.”

Sourdough – “Fermented dough retained from one baking and used as leaven, rather than fresh yeast, to start the next.”

Superspreader – “A person who spreads a contagious disease more easily and widely than the average infected person.”

Telework – “To work at home or from another remote location.”

Unmute – “To turn on (a microphone, a speaker, or audio), especially after it has been temporarily turned off or when muted sound is the default.”

Zoom – “The brand name of a software application and online service that enables voice and video phone calls over the internet.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.