In a Word: The Words of 2020

A look back at the word histories we explored in 2020.

A multidirectional sign at a crossroads directing people to the past, present or future.
(jonanderswiken / Shutterstock)

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The word retrospective derives from the Latin prefix retro- “back” + specere “to look at” (also the source of spectator, spectacle, and introspection). And today, you get a retrospective, a look back at some of the high points and meaningful milestones for this column over the last year.

I started 2020 by looking at the history of something that was on many people’s minds: resolutions. But the story doesn’t start with new year’s resolutions; that’s a more recent use of the word that came about after it found a life in mathematics, science, government, literature, and music.

Read “A New Year’s Resolution”

In February I introduced an uncommon word that’s pertinent only every four years: bissextus. To say that bissextus is just a fancy word for leap day elides the most interesting tidbits of the history of calendar-making that you’ll find in this article, including

  • how Roman politicians messed with the calendar for personal gain.
  • why September, October, November, and December are no longer the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months.
  • why George Washington has two birthdays.
  • why the year 2100 won’t be a leap year.

Read “Bissextus: A Short History of Leap Years”

In March, the COVID virus had gone international, and the word quarantine was on everyone’s minds, and on this column. Original quarantines were 40 days long — an amount that’s inherent in the name. Thankfully, today quarantine refers to a medical isolation of any length of time, so we don’t have the added worry of keeping a 12-day duodecintine straight from a 20-day vigintine.

Read “How Long Is a Quarantine?”

April saw one of my longer In a Word pieces, but that’s because it tackles seven words instead of one — namely, the seven days of the week. English gets a lot of its language from Latin (primarily via French), but not the days of the week. Ironically, the one English day name that does derive from Latin is also the day name that romance languages strayed from that Latin source.

Read “My Gods! What Day Is It?”

I include this one from May not because it was so very popular, but because, of all the In a Word posts from 2020, this one has my favorite title. It also includes the mnemonic device I use to remember how to spell the word in question.

Read “The French Lieutenant’s Spelling”

Normally, In a Word is all about the joy and fun of language and how it changes, but one post in June I consider more of a public service message. Though it’s created from ages-old roots, the word cisgender has been around only since the 1990s, so it’s okay if you don’t really know what it means. But there’s no reason to remain in ignorance.

Read “What Does ‘Cisgender’ Mean?”

July 16 was a meaningful day for this column: It was when we published the 100th In a Word post. Naturally, I chose to explore the history of the word hundred, and not only in English.

Read “The 100th Column”

The 101st column was something different, too: the first In a Word post that wasn’t written by yours truly. The Post’s summer intern, Zoe Hanquier, wrote an interesting history that explains how the words gladiator and gladiolus are related. This post also begins with my favorite image from the past year.

Read “Gladiators with Gladioluses”

In the weeks before November 3 (and for weeks afterward), everyone was talking and writing about the “historic election.” That included this column as well. I published two posts about the election in October, but, unlike all those other stories out there, mine leave out the politics and focus on the history of two election-related words: ballot and poll.

Read “Where Your Ballot Comes From” and “How We Got to the Polls”

And just three weeks ago, I opened the liquor cabinet and explored the histories of some of the spirits one finds there. My favorite posts to write are the ones where I learn something new, and this is one of those. Before I started researching liquor names, I didn’t know, for instance, how brandy was made, and that the name brandy derives from a basic description of that process. I also had no idea that Kentucky bourbon is older than the State of Kentucky itself.

Read “Unlocking the Liquor Cabinet”

I hope you learned something from this column during 2020, and I look forward to surprising you with some of the unexpected ways our words have changed in the future. Did you have a favorite word history from 2020? Or is there a word that’s always vexed you that you’d like to understand better? Let us know in the comments. And thank you for reading!

Featured image: jonanderswiken / Shutterstock

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