COVID-19, Sus, Karen - Lake Superior State releases annual list of banished words

It was an "unprecedented year," where "COVID-19" forced many to "social distance" out of an "abundance of caution."

But it's okay, because "we're all in this together" during these "uncertain times."

How many times have you read the phrases written out above? Perhaps, if you had shoved your head under a rock from March until now, probably not much - at least not much out of the ordinary.

But for the poor saps of 2020 who hadn't anticipated a year quite like the one just experienced, they've heard these terms before. They've lived these terms. And people are also probably tired of reading them.

(Photo illustration by Hugh Pinney/Getty Images)

Lucky for all of the 2020 haters out there, the key phrases above are among the 2021 Banished Words list, an annual breakdown of verbal cues from the year prior that summarize what most will remember about the last 365 days, even if they wished they could forget.

"Enough already with COVID-19!" read a release from the list's authors at Lake Superior State University. 

Out of more than 1,450 nominations for the banished words list, More than 250 of the submissions related to the coronavirus. 

"It should surprise no one that this year’s list was dominated by words and terms related to COVID-19," said Banished Words List committee members Associate Professor of English Mary McMyne, Assistant Professor of English Julie Barbour, and Associate Professor of English Dr. Chad Barbour. "LSSU’s Banished Words List has reflected signs of the times since debuting in the mid-1970s, and the zeitgeist this year is: We’re all in this together by banishing expressions like ‘We’re all in this together. 

"To be sure, COVID-19 is unprecedented in wreaking havoc and destroying lives. But so is the overreliance on ‘unprecedented’ to frame things, so it has to go, too."

The banished word list has received its annual update every year since 1977. It targets the "Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness" of each year's trendiest phrases.

Remember Quid pro quo, totes, and Ok, Boomer? That was last year (really, that was just last year). What about On fleek, post-truth, and focus? Those were banished in 2017. In 2003, it was Homeland Security, Must-see-TV, and branding. In 1994, it was He/she, gun control, and three-three-three. 

Many may not remember those terms - perhaps a sign that even the most significant events can fade from memory.

Maybe 2020 will render the same fate decades from now. But not everyone is so lucky. 

With credit to Lake Superior State University, listed below are this year's banished words, beginning with:

1. COVID-19 (COVID, coronavirus, Rona)

A large number of nominators are clearly resentful of the virus and how it has overtaken our vocabulary. No matter how necessary or socially and medically useful these words are, the committee cannot help but wish we could banish them along with the virus itself. Coincidentally, this list arrives as does a vaccine—the committee hopes this proves a type of double whammy.

2. Social distancing

This phrase is useful, as wearing a mask and keeping your distance have a massive effect on preventing the spread of infection. But we’d be lying if we said we weren’t ready for this phrase to become "useless." With north of 50 nominations, many others clearly feel the same, and the tone of their reasoning ranged from impatient to heartfelt.

3. We’re all in this together

This phrase was likely intended as a way to keep everyone feeling safe and calm at the start of the pandemic. However, as the virus made its way across the globe and nation, it became clear that we are all dealing with COVID-19 in different ways and that we confront some vastly different challenges in coping with it. As with many words that show up on the list, its usefulness has faded.

4. In an abundance of caution (various phrasings)

Yes, humanity needs to follow safeguards during COVID-19. The statistics are sobering: more than 342,000 deaths and more than 19 million confirmed cases in the U.S. and more than 1.8 million deaths and more than 82 million confirmed cases worldwide. But the phrasing about how to take preventative steps is vague. What is the standard measurement for caution, metric or U.S. standard?

5. In these uncertain times (various phrasings)

The committee agrees that COVID-19 has upended everyday life and wishes this weren’t so. But putting things into imprecise context doesn’t help matters. The blur dilutes reality and, to some, sounds like the beginning of a movie trailer. Keep as wide a berth of trite parlance as those who don’t wear masks in public. What exactly does it mean for times to be uncertain? Look at a clock!

6. Pivot

Reporters, commentators, talking heads, and others from the media reference how everyone must adapt to the coronavirus through contactless delivery, virtual learning, curbside pickup, video conferencing, remote working, and other urgent readjustments. That’s all true and vital. But basketball players pivot; let’s keep it that way.

7. Unprecedented

It’s unheard of that a word would be repeated on the Banished Words List. Actually, it’s not. In the early years, words wound up repeated, although we try to avoid repetition nowadays. Despite the fact that "unprecedented" was banished in 2002, given that it was nominated many times this year for misuse in describing events that do have precedent, inclusion again seems warranted.

2021 Banished Words and Terms Not About COVID-19:

8. Karen

What began as an anti-racist critique of the behavior of white women in response to Black and Brown people has become a misogynist umbrella term for critiquing the perceived overemotional behavior of women. As one nominator said about reasons for its banishment, "I would tell you why, but I’d sound like a Karen." Another critic observed, "Offensive to all normal people named Karen."

9. Sus

It’s a shortened version for "suspicious" in the video game Among Us. No committee members play, but our children who do explained that this multiplayer online social game is designed around identifying "sus" imposters so they can be "thrown into the lava." Complainers a) ask: How much effort does it take to say the entire word; and b) request: If that can’t happen, confine the syllable to the gaming world.

10. I know, right?

An amusing phrase flooding social media, "I know, right?" is a relatively new construction to convey empathy with those who have expressed agreement. But as one wordsmith put it, if you know, why do you need to ask if it’s correct or seek further approval? Another grammarian suggested that the desire for confirmation connotes insecurity. In other words, it’s reiterating something already seconded.

"Real-world concerns preoccupied word watchdogs this year, first and foremost COVID-19, and that makes sense," said LSSU President Dr. Rodney S. Hanley. "In a small way, maybe this list will help ‘flatten the curve,’ which also was under consideration for banishment. We trust that your ‘new normal’—another contender among nominations—for next year won’t have to include that anymore. "