Words at Play

We Added New Words to the Dictionary for April 2020

An update of 535 new words, from 'deepfake' to 'zonkey'

A new word is entered in our dictionary when evidence shows it in frequent use by many writers. Usually, this process takes at least a few years, but there are extraordinary cases when a new term enters the language and immediately becomes part of our collective daily vocabulary. Such is the case with the language of the current pandemic. Because of the speed with which these new words became essential to communication, we made a special update on March 18th that included terms like COVID-19, social distancing, contact tracing, and community spread.

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Among the recent additions: deepfake, fan art, truthiness, and a slew of new medical terms.

More Coronavirus-Related Additions

Now, with our regularly scheduled update of 535 new words and meanings added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary, we include even more terms that have sudden significance during this crisis.

  • Self-isolate: to isolate or separate oneself or itself from others.
  • Physical distancing: the practice of maintaining a greater than usual physical space between oneself and other people or of avoiding direct contact with people or objects in public places during the outbreak of a contagious disease in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection. A few months ago, terms like these might have seemed too self-explanatory to require definitions, but now there is an immediate and important specificity to them.
  • Contactless: not involving contact. Similarly, both the physical and technological meanings of contactless are being used much more frequently.
  • WFH: an abbreviation for "working from home."
  • PPE: an abbreviation for “personal protective equipment.”
  • Forehead thermometer: a thermometer that is placed on, passed over, or pointed at the forehead to measure a person's body temperature.
  • Intensivist: a physician who specializes in the care and treatment of patients in intensive care.

Specialized Medical Words

Specialized and technical words are often used only by professionals in a given field, and therefore not found in general-use dictionaries. The scientific response to COVID-19, however, has thrown many terms previously used mainly by medical researchers into the general vocabulary.

  • Epidemic curve: a visual representation in the form of a graph or chart depicting the onset and progression of an outbreak of disease and especially infectious disease in a particular population.
  • Immune surveillance: any monitoring process of the immune system that detects and destroys foreign substances, cells, or tissues.
  • Community immunity and herd immunity: a reduction in the risk of infection with a specific communicable disease (such as measles or influenza) that occurs when a significant proportion of the population has become immune to infection (as because of previous exposure or vaccination) so that susceptible individuals are much less likely to come in contact with infected individuals.

Specific medicines are suddenly in the news, and we have added the viral replication inhibitors remdesivir and favipiravir as well as the drug sometimes used to treat malaria, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus called hydroxychloroquine.

New Words for Fears

Fears associated with treatments and medical facilities themselves bring us several newly more prominent words.

New Words from Older Concepts

While current events have driven the inclusion of the words above, most of the new words in this update are terms we've been tracking for years. They range from the technical to the very human.

  • End effector: a tool that can be mounted at the end of a robotic arm.
  • Fan art: fan-created artwork based on popular works of fiction.

Also very human, for better or worse, is impostor syndrome, a psychological condition characterized by persistent self-doubt. Both body-shaming and fat-shaming are established terms for aggressive, judgmental, and cruel behavior.

New Words from Technology

  • Microtarget: to direct tailored advertisements, political messages, etc., at (people) based on detailed information about them (such as what they buy, watch, or respond to on a website).
  • Deepfake: an image or recording that has been convincingly altered and manipulated to misrepresent someone as doing or saying something that was not actually done or said.
  • Deep web: the set of web pages on the World Wide Web that are not indexed by search engines but that may be viewable in a standard Web browser (as by logging in to a website).
  • Dark web: the set of web pages on the World Wide Web that cannot be indexed by search engines, are not viewable in a standard Web browser, require specific means (such as specialized software or network configuration) in order to access, and use encryption to provide anonymity and privacy for users.

It’s perhaps a measure of frustration with governmental and corporate dysfunction that two new verbs join the dictionary:

  • Slow-walk: to delay or prevent the progress of (something) by acting in a deliberately slow manner.
  • Stovepipe: to transmit information to a higher level in an organization through an isolated and narrow channel of communication.

New Words from Wordplay

  • Univerbation: the process by which a fixed collocation of words becomes a single word, in the way that goodbye evolved from “God be with you,” and albeit derived from “although it be.” The aforementioned slow-walk is an example of this.
  • Thirsty: showing a strong desire for attention, approval, or publicity. This new use demonstrates how English speakers love to use metaphor to push words into new territories.
  • Finna: an informal pronunciation spelling of “fixing to” do something, which shows the impact of speech's efficiency in the written language.
  • Zedonk and zonkey: both refer to a hybrid between a zebra and a donkey. Modern English loves blends.

'Truthiness'

  • Truthiness: a seemingly truthful quality not supported by facts or evidence.

There’s a special place in our hearts for truthiness. The word was introduced to many by Stephen Colbert in his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, but it's since caught on, and now tells a truth of its own: at a time when truths of various kinds are under siege, and facts and news are put into constant question, English speakers find it useful to have a special word for the kind of unproven and unprovable utterances that don’t measure up to the standards of evidence and research that are required for consensus and understanding. This could help us all keep truth as a word that matters.

For the previous batch of new words, check out our September 2019 additions.



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