2020 US-to-UK Word of the Year: furlough

Each year since 2006, I've designated Transatlantic Words of the Year (WotY). This year is a little different in that I declared the US-to-UK WotY at an online event earlier this month. Those attending the event voted on the UK-to-US WotY, which I'll blog about tomorrow. 

For US-to-UK, the choice was clear. Readers had nominated it repeatedly over the last few months. That's not to say there weren't runners-up (so read all the way to the end for those).

The US-to-UK Word of the Year is (dum-tiddy-dum-dum-DUM!):

furlough

If you consider a word to be a series of letters, then you could say "that's not new to the UK!" because it's not. The noun goes back to the early 1600s from the Dutch verlof, meaning 'exemption from service'. But words are not just series of letters; a word is bunch of letters (and, more importantly, sounds) that's linked to a conventionally shared meaning. It's a particular meaning in combination with this form that made a splash in the UK this year—one that originated in the US.

The splashy usage this year had to do with a UK government (more BrE) scheme / (more AmE) program that paid employees whose workplaces didn't need them during the pandemic shut-downs: The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. This involved bringing in this sense of furlough from AmE. (Quoted from the OED.)

3. Originally U.S. Dismissal or suspension from employment, usually due to economic conditions; unplanned (and typically unpaid and involuntary) leave; the period of such suspension or leave. Also: an instance of this.

The new usage was striking enough in the UK that the OED added this note to the entry:

Chiefly U.S. until use of the term became more widespread in March 2020 when the U.K. government introduced a furlough scheme in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, under which the government gave grants to employers to pay part of the wages of employees left without work, or unable to work, as a result of the crisis.

The sense has existed in AmE since the 1860s, though, and until recently it was mostly associated with government jobs, undoubtedly due to its military roots. AmE also uses furlough for periods of relief from active duty in the armed forces, especially during wartime or when posted abroad. The OED marks that sense as 'chiefly U.S. or historical'. BrE now mostly uses leave in this case—a word that deserves its own post.

The non-military use of furlough (sense 3 above) got a lot of attention in recent years because of US government shut-downs, when government employees (and contractors) were out of work until the federal budget was agreed. I think it's because of such recent US usage that the word was on UK governmental and/or human-resources minds when needing vocabulary for their pandemic-induced actions. 

Thanks to all who nominated it for this year's US-to-UK WotY.

 

Runners-up

There were other strong contenders for this year's US-to-UK word, chief among them the word that Collins Dictionary chose for its Word of the Year: lockdown. Originally (1830s at the latest) it was a wooden piece used in the construction of rafts, and later a wooden peg or similar to keep other things in place, but in the 1970s it started to be used in the now-familiar sense of confining prisoners to their cells, usually as a security measure. From there it spread out to use in other places where heightened security might be needed, and finally to our pandemic lives. I've blogged about it previously here.

Whack-a-mole also saw increased BrE usage this year, thanks to the contentious decision to lock down certain areas and not others earlier this year:



Though the Whac(k)-a-mole arcade game is Japanese in origin, the name of it, and its metaphorical use, has till this year been more AmE than BrE:



 





But in 2020, it was a BrE term:

 

Finally, I also had my eye on AmE normalcy, which seemed to be showing up in BrE a bit more. For example, it was used a couple of times in this article on my employer's website. Happily I screen-shot this. It seems to have disappeared from the staff news archives—perhaps a signal that we won't be returning to normalcy after all.


"Return to normalcy" was Warren G. Harding's campaign slogan for the 1920 US presidential election, appealing to the public's desire to go back to the way things were before World War I. (The noun normalcy itself goes back some decades more.) It was then and remains a controversial word for those who don't care for language change. Normality remains a 'normal' word in AmE and BrE, though normalcy has become more 'normal' in AmE in recent decades. People tend to talk about it more when things aren't normal and we long for them to be. And so here's how things are going in the news internationally: 

 

But in BrE, normality still rules (and return to normal is used more in any case):

I'm going to (orig. AmE) root for normalcy for next year's US-to-UK WotY because it's much more pleasant a prospect than furloughed, mole-whacking lockdowns! 

Stay tuned tomorrow for the 2020 UK-to-US WotY.

13 comments

  1. I guess "root for" (as in "root for normalcy") doesn't sound as peculiar in British English as in Australian. When someone tells my Australian friends "I'll be rooting for you," they answer, "Thanks, but I'd rather do that for myself."

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    1. I don't think the meaning of root you allude to is well known outside of Australia... hearing "rooting for you" must be pretty funny if you are an Aussie tho!

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  2. This is really interesting as the main way I'd heard the word before is in old (British) books e.g. The Chalet School books have a man working in India who comes home for extended leave every few years and he is said to be on furlough.

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    1. It wasn't just old usage. My parents (from NZ) worked in various parts of the Indian subcontinent and Pacific as medical workers from 1980 for about 25 years. They did 3 year blocks, with a 3 month furlough at the end of each, with paid travel back to their registered home area.

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    2. Rachael Churchill04 January, 2021 19:28

      My (BrE) main association for "furlough" is church missionaries coming home for a year or so of leave.

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  3. In what may be taken as the final absolute proof that I'm middle-class, I confess that when I first heard that thing about regional lockdowns, I wondered what on Earth guacamole had to do it.

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  4. ...to do WITH it! Urgh.

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  5. I remember the word furlough from my employment. It meant leave I think but I had no real understanding if it paid leave or not. Normalcy!!! Surely that means normality. A new word for a quite satisfactory old word. 'We are in a world of normalcy' or 'We are in a world of normality'? I think I will opt for 'Whack a Mole', as it paints a picture loading with meaning.

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    1. Except "normalcy" is not a new word. It's over 100 years old.

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    2. "The English think 100 miles is a long way.
      Americans think 100 years is a long time."

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  6. When Warren Harding used the word "normalcy" in a speech, people belittled it as "a neologism as well as a malapropism", although it had been in dictionaries as early as 1857.

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  7. The problem with "normalcy" for me (as a Brit) is not a problem of lexical replacement so much as it is a problem of morpho(phono)logical infelicity. For me at least -cy is a variant of -ity conditioned by the shape of the original adjective stem, only occurring with adjectives that end with a -t; clemency is the quality of being clement, potency is the quality of being potent and so on versus e.g. perversity from perverse and magnanimity from magnanimous. "normalcy" doesn't work because it doesn't follow this pattern, hence why I find it uncomfortable even as a linguist who otherwise is very much in favour of descriptivism. I'm kinda bemused as to how it even arose to begin with, is it simply due to the relative uncommonality of -ity derivations in everyday speech giving opportunity for reanalysis of a phonologically opaque derivation?

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)