The Top 10: Words People Hadn’t Heard Of in January 2020

Additions to the dictionaries since the rona

John Rentoul
Friday 07 January 2022 17:09
<p>Institute of Virology in Wuhan, ninth largest city in China </p>

Institute of Virology in Wuhan, ninth largest city in China

Sean Rogers started this one off, prompted by the oddness of Sajid Javid giving an update on Omicron in the House of Commons.

1. Coronavirus. Some people had heard of it – one of several kinds of virus that cause the common cold, and a variant of which caused Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2002-03) – but now more people have.

2. Wuhan. City more populous than London.

3. Fomites. Medical word for surfaces, which turned out not to be important in transmitting this virus. Nominated by No Ordinary Cat.

4. Superspreader. Thanks to Huw Harries.

5. Coladangelo. There is always one. This week it is Matt Chorley. We had not heard of non-executive directors at government departments, let alone of Gina Coladangelo at Matt Hancock’s. Sometimes there are two: the other was Carlo Giannone, who nominated “Raducanu”.

6. Zoom. Old word, new proprietary meaning: the hoover of the pandemic.

7. Furlough. Perfectly good word, familiar to me because it was what my father, a Church of Scotland minister, called his six-month leave in the UK from India, but new to most people.

8. Ping, pingdemic. To be pinged was an existing verb referring to a text or an email, but took on quite a different meaning with Track and Trace.

9. Omicron. Previously obscure letter of the Greek alphabet: small “O” (“O”-micron). I copied the prime minister’s pronunciation, “Ommy-kron”, because I assumed he would know, but according to the Oxford dictionary it was “oh-MY-kron” in British English.

10. Aquamation. Eco-friendly form of cremation in water, chosen by Desmond Tutu. Late entry from Sean Rogers.

I allowed ping on the list, because it produced the neologism pingdemic, but other familiar words also acquired new meanings, such as lockdown, restrictions, tier and bubble. And I was strict about single words, so no “Article 16”, “dark kitchen”, “herd immunity” or any of the other popular nominations.

Next week: Political meals, after Boris Johnson flew back from the Cop26 climate summit for dinner at the Garrick private members’ club with Charles Moore, who persuaded him that Owen Paterson must be saved.

Coming soon: Soundbites that sound good on first hearing but when thought about are revealed to be nonsense, such as: “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to

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