The words and terms which defined 2020

The words and terms which defined 2020

No surprise this year of rolling crises has spawned a raft of expressions we'll forever associate with 2020.

Here's my list of the good, the bad and the ugly, forged in fire, flood and pandemic.

Slowmo: Another of the PM's nicknames unearthed in 2020. Photo: Shutterstock

Slowmo: Another of the PM's nicknames unearthed in 2020. Photo: Shutterstock


This almost tops the list as the favourite of 2020. The daggy dad PM's extraordinary lapses in judgment during the bushfire crisis came back to bite him. When he told NSW residents choking on bushfire smoke in what looked like Martian landscapes in mid-December he understood their concernns about bushfires and smoke haze but was standing by his government's climate policies, you could almost fry an egg on the red-hot scorn. Social media was lightning fast, changing his Scomo nickname to SmoKo. And it went on from there. When he lapsed into his trademark smirk, he became Smirko. When he snuck out of the country for his infamous Hawaii holiday - and posed witlessly for a high-fiving selfie with other holiday-makers, his moniker morphed into Shirko. You couldn't script this stuff.

Have you checked the app?

For tens of thousands of residents on the east coast, this almost overtook "Did you sleep well?" as the first words uttered to family in the morning. The app, of course, was Fires Near Me, which told us every morning just how close the fires raging through NSW had come overnight and what peril the new day had in store for us. When we checked it as New Year's Eve dawned, we thought it had come off the rails because great long fingers of black had clawed their way out of the hills towards the south coast. But it was telling the dreadful truth - the fires had made their biggest run overnight. Fires Near Me most likely overtook Facebook as the first port of online call.

The New Normal

This expression had two parents - climate change, and the bushfire crisis for which it was blamed, and the pandemic. Early in the year, we were told to get used to the "new normal" of extreme weather, drought, flood and fire. By March, as the global pandemic arrived on our shores, the expression attached itself to the new restrictions imposed upon us. The "new normal" became the catch-all for circumstances which were anything but normal. It became shorthand for lockdowns, toilet paper shortages, closed borders, travel restrictions and sudden large scale job losses. The expression has something Orwellian about it, suggesting that abnormal (which sums up 2020) is, well, normal. It isn't and never will be.


Formerly an acronym for International Standards Organisation or a prefix for scientific words such as isobar, iso became shorthand for life under lockdown in isolation. Many suffered through iso; some flourished. Iso taught us to rediscover new pastimes or exhaust the offerings of streaming services. In weird ways iso brought us together. We picked up the phone and embraced Zoom and Facetime. We talked to each other. Which brings us to the next term ...

Social distancing

This concept would have been better expressed as "physical distancing". The idea was to maintain physical distance between people to calm the spread of the coronavirus. We wrapped our heads around the four square metre rule - that was an individual's exclusion zone in an indoor setting. We were told to stay 1.5 metres apart outside. We learned to socialise without being in each other's grilles.

Flatten the curve

Before 2020, this meant laying off the beer and carbs and sweating it out on the bike or in the gym. In 2020, it took on a statistical meaning: slowing the rate of COVID infection to prevent our hospitals being overwhelmed with critically ill patients. We did pretty well until a poorly-managed hospital quarantine system led to an outbreak and an extremely tough lockdown. Ironically, the steps taken to flatten one curve led to the growth of tens of thousands couch-and-fridge-fuelled curves elsewhere. A job for 2021, perhaps?


For those of us lucky enough to have jobs, this natty little acronym stands for working from home. When restrictions were imposed in March, those who could work from home were advised to do so. The office became a distant memory and with it all the daily distractions - the wasted minutes in fruitless conversations that add up to an hour of lost productivity a day. There were upsides and downsides. We got to spend more time with family and pets. Dogs got more walks than ever, long ignored jobs around the home got done and an inner calm descended when the rushed morning commute was binned. On the flipside, it did seem like our sanctuary had been invaded. Colleagues were suddenly in our kitchens via Zoom Google chat. Separation of church and state became blurred. And when the schools closed and remote learning became a thing, we had to be employees and teachers' aides. At. The. Same. Time.


We heard this word so often in 2020, it completely lost its impact. The fires, the COVID lockdown, the recession, the job losses, the deficit - it was all unprecedented.

Grim milestone

A favourite among TV newsreaders, this expression was so over-used, it needed several retreads. There were so many grim milestones - in deaths, infections, hospitalisations - they blurred into one.

In this together

A nice marketing term but one so divorced from reality it grated almost as soon as it was uttered. We weren't in it together by any stretch and we're still not. While us ordinary folk laboured under tough restrictions, they weren't imposed on sports people, film stars and politicians, many of whom enjoyed exemptions. While we dream of jetting off overseas again, former politicians like Tony Abbott and Matthias Cormann sail through loopholes.


No longer confined to Canberra, the bubble took on new meaning. First it was about immediate family, then small groups of friends and after that travel. The bubble also had different interpretations depending on state borders. The NSW-Vic border bubble, for instance, had numerous incarnations.

Holiday at home

With overseas travel off the books, we have no choice but to travel locally. This is great in theory but if you live in one of those holiday hot spots, the hordes will travelling in YOUR home. Also see "staycation".


This has to be my favourite word of 2020. No matter what the year has thrown at us - fire, flood, pandemic, trade wars and Trump - there's hope that next year will be a lot better. Hope is what keeps us from throwing in the towel.

This story The words and terms which defined 2020 first appeared on South Coast Register.