a16z Podcast

Words of 2020! (and Metaphors, and Interfaces of the Year)

Gretchen McCulloch and Sonal Chokshi

Posted December 24, 2020

“In a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other”… so it’s unprecedented that for the first time, the Oxford English Dictionary did NOT name a word of the year. But do we really need the dictionaries to tell us what our words of the year are? Especially if the approaches “Big Word” takes may be based on more lagging vs. leading indicators; after all, language is created and constructed as we go.

And yet. People want the dictionary to give them permission of “tell me what the words are”, observes internet linguist (and author of the NYT bestselling book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language) Gretchen McCulloch. No! We, the people, decide what the words are!! So in this special holiday, end-of-year episode, a16z Podcast showrunner Sonal Chokshi chats with McCulloch about the words of the year in and beyond Oxford’s “Words of an Unprecedented Year” report — and importantly, the tech shifts and cultural shifts behind them.

From remote work portmanteaus to scientific discourse in a pandemic (for better and for worse) to social movements and more — we take a whirlwind tour through the words of the year, exploring misplaced analogies, shifting metaphors, and even the evolution of interfaces. We dip into the settling of the “Zoomer” generation and “moonshots”; dive into the need for “third places” and parties; debate Dunbar numbers for conversations, and the trend of “proximity chat” — and discuss the meta story of language, and of writing itself. The English language may have resulted from network effects involving the “loners” who introduce words, and the “leaders” who spread them; but writing is a technology that spreads with the tools, going well beyond medium/message, connecting us across time and place and online spaces.