Five BS Terms of 2020 (That are Older Than You Think)
Tim Ito & Bob Wiltfong
Other than death, destruction, an economic depression, and the looming prospect of civil war, 2020 hasn’t been all that bad really, has it? Oy. Who are we kidding? This year has been awful. We’re talking Battlefield Earth awful. It’s the worst. But let’s look on the bright side here! 2020 has also brought us words we will not soon forget. (We know that’s not much of a consolation, but beyond Tiger King there isn’t much to go with here, folks, so let’s embrace it, OK?) Let’s celebrate the positive! Here are five terms that are trending in 2020 (with origins that are older than you might imagine).
Definition: A form of psychological manipulation, gaslighting is the act of sowing doubt in a targeted individual or a group, making those individuals question their own memories, perceptions, or judgments. Usually, this is done by denials, misdirection, and contradiction of known facts for the purpose of deceit.
Origin: The term originated from the 1938 British play Gas Light about a manipulative husband intent on convincing his wife she is going insane, to the point of assuring her she is imagining that the gas light in the house is dimming. The play eventually became a 1940 film, Gaslight, which many regard as helping to popularize the term.
Why Is It in Use Now? The spike in the use of the term coincided with the arrival of the Trump administration. We’ll leave it at that.
Definition: As we all know by now, COVID-19 is an example of a pandemic – an infectious disease that has spread across multiple continents or countries and affects a large number of people (as opposed to an epidemic, which is an infectious disease that stays contained in a particular country or region).
Origin: The origin of the word pandemic, which comes from the Greek word pandemos (meaning “all the people”), dates back as early as the mid-1600s. It was first used as an adjective (e.g. “a pandemic malaria”) before it was used as a noun, which didn’t come until the 1800s. Indeed, we’ve had pandemics even before we called them pandemics such as the “Black Plague,” which killed 75 to 200 million people in the 14th century. Outside of coronavirus, the other famous pandemics include the Spanish flu of 1918 and HIV/AIDS from the 1980s.
Why Is It in Use Now? Well, we are in the middle of one. Let’s hope we don’t have to use this term again for a long time.
Definition: A slang term used to describe typically angry, entitled, and / or racist white women, who use privilege to get their way or as a means to police people's behaviors. Today, many “Karens” are those caught on viral video doing and / or saying something rather reprehensible.
Origin: Karen derives from Danish, where it had been a short form of "Katherine" since medieval times. In the English-speaking world, it only became popular in the 1940s. Most point the derogatory use of “Karen” to Dane Cook’s comedy sketch, The Friend No One Likes, from 2007 in which he said: “Karen is always a d—chebag.”
Why Now? In an age of social media and civil strife, it was perhaps inevitable to see people post bad behavior online, and commentators, not knowing perpetrators’ names, thought of Cook’s generic “Karen” first. We do feel for all those real-life Karens who aren’t really “Karens” but just nice, decent people. Then again, it could always be worse. Just think of all the “Alexas” out there who’ve had their names hijacked by Amazon or anyone named “Moe Lester” or “Jack Goff.”
Definition: The term generally refers to those who are alert to injustices in society. It has also taken on a negative connotation in some circles where it has come to describe an overly sensitive individual who overreacts to perceived injustices.
Origin: Many give credit to soul singer Erykah Badu, who on the 2008 song “Master Teacher” used a line in the refrain: “I stay woke,” referring to a general awareness of things. Interestingly, Badu later claimed people were employing “wokeness” against her after she expressed some empathy for certain controversial figures.
Why Now? With ongoing street protests over the wrongful killings of George Floyd and other African-Americans in 2020, the call to become more aware of the plight of black Americans, in particular, has brought about a push to make changes to established white hierarchies and beliefs. On the other side, many claim the push is an overreaction. A fair point in some cases, but that side was never really “woke” now, was it?
5. Social distancing
Definition: (From the Centers for Disease Control): “Social distancing is the practice of increasing the space between individuals and decreasing the frequency of contact to reduce the risk of spreading a disease (ideally to maintain at least 6 feet between all individuals, even those who are asymptomatic).” Unlike some, we don’t mess around with CDC guidelines...
Origin: Somehow 2020 will almost be defined by this term. But its origin is actually far older. “Social distance” as a concept can be found in books as far back as the Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte from 1836. Most recently, many credit the popularization of “social distancing” to the work of sociologist Karl Manheim. One of the founders of the sociology of knowledge, Manheim wrote about the concept in the 1930s and later in the 1950s, where he used the term to refer more to the social and cultural distance between groups, rather than a physical distancing between actual people. “The inhibition of free expression can also serve as a means of social distancing,” he wrote. By the mid-2000s, the term began to be used in reference to the physical distance necessary during pandemics.
Why Now? If you live something every day, it becomes routine. Who knows? Maybe we’ll miss being near other people so much, we won’t mind going back to the crowded subways, or the packed gyms, or the clubs where it’s 3-deep to get a drink at the bar… Then again, after learning more this year about all germs passed in close quarters, maybe not.
Perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that the above terms don’t exactly arouse positive connotations. It is 2020 after all. But maybe there’s some hope going into the new year! Carole Baskins is going to be on Dancing with the Stars this fall and that should lead to a couple more episodes of The Tiger King, right?! Oh, man. We’re desperate for some hope here…
Tim Ito and Bob Wiltfong are the co-authors of The BS Dictionary: Uncovering the Origins and True Meanings of Business Speak.