Quarantini, anyone? The best and worst words of 2020

By Shannon Jenkins

December 18, 2020


If you could pick one word to represent the tumultuous year that was 2020, what would it be?

For Julieanne Lamond, a lecturer in English at the Australian National University, that word would be ‘unmute!’.

“It just sums up how hapless so many of us have been in the face of having to do everything online,” she tells The Mandarin.

COVID-19 saw many Australians move their face-to-face work meetings from the office to online platforms such as Zoom. Shouting ‘unmute!’ at a pixelated, frozen picture of your colleague’s chin may have seemed strange at the beginning of 2020, but now a handshake would probably seem more unusual.

We see you, Matthew Elmas.

The pandemic also prompted daily press conferences from our state and federal leaders, which much of the public watched intently from their homes in the hopes of hearing some positive news (or seeing Dan Andrews in his North Face jacket, for those in Victoria).

While politicians and the media alike overuse certain words and phrases every year, the events of 2020 have produced a seemingly endless array of pandemic-related cliches, terminology and even some colourful slang.

Here, The Mandarin has compiled some of the words from 2020 that we never want to hear again — as well as some of the best.

Let’s start with the worst

Lockdown, social distancing, and isolation — All reminders of some of the bleakest aspects of the pandemic.

Anything that begins with ‘COVID’, like COVID-normal, COVID-safe, and COVID recession. Similarly, anything that begins with ‘Job’, like JobMaker, and JobKeeper. Scott, I’m looking at you.

The new normal — How long until we accept that this is just ‘normal’?

Snapback — A snapback is a type of hat. I will not accept any other definitions.

President Trump — A combination of words that will hopefully remain in 2020.

Pivot — Just pivot me away from this year, please.

Nothing says ‘2020’ like a couch stuck in a stairwell.

Uncharted waters — The mysterious, sexy cousin of ‘unprecedented’.

Homeschooling — this was Lamond’s pick for the worst word of the year, and it’s not hard to understand why.

“As the parent of two primary school aged kids, the word I never want to hear again is ‘homeschooling’. Need I say more?” she says.

Paradigm shift — Sorry Mike Pezzullo, it’s a no from us.

Orwellian. Similarly, any references to 1984, communism, or dictatorships.

Unprecedented — Arguably the very worst word of 2020, ‘unprecedented’ has been sprinkled throughout news reports, press conferences and interviews for well over a year. It was initially used to describe the horror 2019-2020 bushfire season, but then the pandemic hit Australia’s shores. We haven’t been able to shake it since.

Oh, it’s precedented alright.

“I think ‘unprecedented’ is a word we use when we are a bit bewildered, as we have all been this year! But it is also used a lot by politicians to suggest that they couldn’t possibly have foreseen — and thus done anything to avoid — the disasters that have happened,” Lamond says.

“This seemed especially the case in relation to the bushfires at the beginning of the year. Calling something ’unprecedented’ is a way of shrugging responsibility for it. But we all say it so much now we’re a bit like goldfish — here we are again! Who could have guessed?”

Notable mentions

‘An abundance of caution’, ‘herd immunity’, ‘learnings’, ‘dicknose’, and ‘no dancing’. All terrible in their own 2020-esque ways.

Wait for it… voila! Dicknose.

The best

Vertical consumption — As opposed to horizontal consumption? Props to the person from the South Australian government who came up with this wonderful phrase to describe the act of drinking while standing up. I will be using it as much as possible in the New Year.

Quarantini — The COVID-themed cocktail emerged in the United States back in March, and Australians were happy to jump on board. Even one of our politicians, Reason Party leader Fiona Patten, joined in on the trend.

“Of course we are going to get behind a word that gives us an excuse to drink cocktails even when we’re at home in our pyjamas!” Lamond says of the word.

COVID kilos — A nice, relatable phrase that those of us who did not master our exercise regimes during lockdown (and perhaps drank too many quarantinis) can use to describe the extra couple of kgs we earned this year.

Doctored image — This year many people have discovered that memes are in fact not real images.

Panic gardening — The more wholesome alternative to hoarding toilet paper and baked beans.

Mum, is that you?

Due to the pandemic… — A surprisingly useful phrase in many situations.

And finally, the proof that Australians are capable of shortening anything, rona and iso.

“Australians have always been good at turning language to our own ends and creating weird and wonderful slang words,” Lamond says.

“Slang terms create a sense of community — they are a sort of in-joke that acknowledges that we’re all in this terrible situation together, and that we understand what other people are going through.”

While it’s hard to know how these words and phrases will be used in the future, Lamond believes that words that can be put to other uses (like ‘iso’) will stick around, where as those that are a bit more specific (like quarantini) will disappear.

“As humans I think we’re pretty good at forgetting disasters and moving on to the next thing, much to our detriment. That’s why writers and filmmakers are important,” she says.

“I’m sure writers are already thinking about how to turn this crazy time into amazing fiction and film and tv, that will help shape how we understand and remember what we’ve all been through.”

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