The Language of 2020 and What it Tells Us about American Power

Words are a product of power and can also be used as an instrument of power. 

These assertions – by Pierre Bourdieu, the famed French sociolinguist –  rang particularly true in 2020.

 “Viral” and “virus” were snatched back from Silicon Valley by nature while the remainder of the year’s lexicon reflected American economic and cultural power. If we follow Bourdieu’s logic that words are a reflection of power, then that of the US has never been stronger. 

Before getting to how the meanings of Zoom, Teams, Uber, and Amazon reflected American cultural power in 2020, the career of “virus” and “viral” in 2020 is worth reviewing. 

The history of the terms “virus” and “viral” is a tale of American power. Both words only obtained their full medical meanings in the 20th Century.  “Virus” began to take its current meaning at the end of  the 19th century while “viral”  can be traced to the mid-20th century. This first coining of terms confirmed the power of European scientific institutions that had gnawed at the Church’s monopoly over the production of knowledge over the preceding two centuries. 

As the United States became the global center of innovation in information technology in the second half of the 20th century, its role as tech superpower also implied power to shape language. “Virus” as a threat to computer security gained life as it was imagined and researched in American universities and American fiction from the 1970s onward.

At the end of the 1990s, “viral” began to be co-opted by the tech world to the current, popular understanding of it as “something that quickly becomes very popular or well known by being published on the internet or sent from person to person by email, phone, etc.”, to borrow from the Cambridge dictionary’s definition.  As with previous shifts in meaning, this one reflected the growing power of American tech: It’s financial heft and power over how information was produced and consumed was reflected in power to appropriate new meaning to an ‘old’ world. 

Yes, Covid-19 meant that the late-19th and 20th century meanings of “virus” and “viral” regained visibility as terms rooted in virology. Even so, however,  the lived experience of 2020 was framed in a vocabulary that attested to the extent and nature of American power  globally. 

California-based Zoom lended its company name to the year’s dictionary as a catch-all verb for all forms of meeting virtually. Much like Google, whose name had evolved into a multipurpose verb, Zoom’s entrance into everyday language signals the persistent, wide reach of American economic and cultural capital.

From Google Trends’ list of most searched terms to the Global Language Monitor, to the Oxford dictionary’s word(s) of the year list – the extent of global interest in the US in 2020 was not that of a global hegemon in decline. Unsurprisingly, the most searched for terms were tied to COVID-19. Yet, when people were not worrying about the virus, a large majority were engrossed in the political and cultural life of the United States.

Here, in France, the most searched-for political story of the year was the US election. Joe Biden came in third after Benjamin Griveaux who was at the center of a sex scandal that broke earlier in 2020, in a Before-Covid world.

Across the world, Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump were among the topics that generated most online chatter over the course of the year. 

From a Paris-region Train Station, a reminder of the spread of American cultural influence over the Atlantic. “Black Lives Matters” (sic)

While the study of international relations tends to revolve around the interactions of governments, disparities in military might, and rival quests for diplomatic clout, transformations in language also reflect shifts (or continuities) in global geopolitical power. In addition to the above, UberEats, Amazon, Teams, Twitter, TikTok and so forth were all core to the vocabulary of 2020. These reflected how the continued circulation of ideas and capital during a year of compounded crisis was anchored in the US’s economy.

In the future, 2020 will provide a vivid case study in how language is produced through global processes tied to geopolitical economic and socio-cultural power (and vice versa).


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