From Covidiot to Tiers: The words you never thought you’d say that entered everyday use in 2020

2020 has introduced a whole new set of words into our vocabulary. Credit: PA

By ITV News Multimedia Producer Suzanne Elliott

The coronavirus pandemic has shaped not just the way we work, live and interact, but also the language we use.

Such is the weirdness of 2020 that it has required a whole new set of rarely used or little known words to describe our unprecedented circumstances.

Here's our pick of some of those bits of vocabulary that have slipped into everyday usage in 2020.

Credit: Unsplash


If someone had described themselves as ‘furloughed’ 12 months ago you may have thought they’d had a bad day at the races. 

But the word has seeped into common parlance since March 23 when Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a furlough scheme to protect millions of jobs across the hospitality, building, travel, fitness and other sectors as the UK went into lockdown.

Under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, also known as furlough, employers could claim a grant covering 80% of the wages for a furloughed employee, subject to a cap of £2,500 a month - and has recently been extended to the end of April 2021.

The word 'furlough' generally means temporary leave of absence from work and is used to retain staff a company wants to keep but can not for a particular reason - say a pandemic - afford to keep on at that moment in time. The word comes from the Dutch 'verlof', which means literally, permission.

Primark furloughed 68,000 staff across Europe as the firm revealed it had been left with £248 million of unsold stock. Credit: PA


This word - a portmanteau of Covid and idiot - reached a peak during the tail end of the first lockdown in spring and was used to disparage people who others believed were not obeying the strict restrictions. For example “look at all those covidiots sitting together in the park”. 

The world appeared to peter out after the ultimate covidiot, former No.10 top aide Dominic Cummings' ‘eye test’ drive to Barnard Castle

No amount of picnics could top that. 

Covidiot was a favourite disparaging term during the spring lockdown. Credit: PA


Pre-2020 this was something dogs did when you brought them to the UK from overseas to ensure they were free of contagious diseases such as rabies. Now our week's holiday in the Canary Islands meant a further 10 days in self-isolation (another 2020 buzzword).

The public were also asked to quarantine if they were displaying Covid symptoms, or if they had come into contact with someone who had tested positive or was displaying symptoms.

Quarantine comes from the mid 17th century Italian quarantina meaning ‘forty days’ - making 10 days seem relatively OK.

Social distancing

In pre-pandemic times, social distancing may have meant last week's date not replying to your WhatsApp messages. In 2020, social distancing meant staying two metres away from people you did not live with, quite the opposite of social in fact. 

This meant doing away with hugs, kisses and handshakes with anyone not in your household or bubble. This gave rise to the rather awkward elbow bump that, nearly a year on from the virus arriving on our shores, has never really caught on with us Brits.

Bubbles became more meaningful than we ever suspected they would.


In 2020, bubbles were no longer a simple air pocket but a social lifeline. 

In June, the Prime Minister announced support bubbles for single adults - many of whom had been more or less isolated for three months - to join another household.

This allowed grandparents to see grandkids and lovers who had been kept apart by lockdown to ‘bubble up’.

But Christmas bubbles were burst the weekend before the big day when Boris Johnson announced large swathes of England were under Tier 4, with stay at home orders enforced by law. In other parts of the country, two households can now only meet on Christmas Day only (childcare and support bubbles aside).

Credit: Unsplash


This time last year, most of the world was in blissful ignorance of the C-word that would lay waste to the very idea of normality in 2020. 

The disease was officially christened by WHO on 11 February 2020 and is named after the virus that causes it - SARS-CoV- 2 - and the year the virus was first discovered.

Covid-19 was chosen because the virus is genetically related to the coronavirus (see below) responsible for the SARS outbreak of 2003.    

Credit: Unsplash


The viruses that cause Covid-19 are responsible for the common cold and are often fairly mundane.

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that were identified as human pathogens in the 1960s and are named for the crown shape of the virions under the electron microscope - corona means 'crown' or 'halo' in Latin.

There are currently seven coronaviruses known to infect humans (although there are many among animals such as pigs, camels, bats and cats).

Four of them cause mild to moderate disease; the other three are responsible for SARS coronavirus, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and Covid-19, caused by SARS-CoV-2.

Credit: Unsplash


This was what happened in Hollywood prison movies prior to 2020 but this year entire communities, cities and countries were forced to shutter down as we were told to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus. 

For many, especially the vulnerable and elderly, this meant months without seeing loved ones, putting enormous strain on people's mental health.

One charity described England's second lockdown as "the greatest test of our mental health this year".

As many as one in three older people are already struggling with anxiety, depression and loneliness brought on by the pandemic and the first lockdown, according to the charity Age UK.


There was rarely much call to use 'tier' in a sentence in a normal world, but it has finally got its moment in the spotlight thanks to the government's term for carving England up to contain the spread of coronavirus.

The name comes from 15th century French ‘tire’ meaning ‘sequence, order’ - although whether there was any in the government’s methodology is open to debate (particularly by mayors of northern cities). 

One thing the term did do was give journalists everywhere a heap of head-in-your hands puns to use. Tiers to that. 

What is a level playing field? Credit: Unsplash

Level playing field

Moving away from the pandemic for a minute to the spectre of Brexit - another issue shaping the UK's present and future and itself an event that has rewritten the dictionary.

In trade, the level playing policy is a set of common rules and standards that prevent one country’s businesses undercutting another’s.

In this case, the EU want the UK to maintain standards on, among other things, workers' rights, environmental protection, taxation and state aid.

Without the assurance that UK businesses will not be gaining a competitive advantage over European competitors , the EU will not allow the UK the best access to the single market - with no tariffs or taxes on goods crossing borders. 

Herd immunity

Herd immunity is how vaccinations work; essentially it creates a protective shield around the community and helps to safeguard those who are more vulnerable. But deliberately putting people in the path of an infectious disease is generally discouraged by public health officials in favour of vaccination - but not by our Government.

This hugely controversial stance has since been rather whitewashed from Westminster's collective memory, but back on Friday 13 March, the UK's chief scientific adviser told ITV News it was hoped the Government's approach to tackling coronavirus ("wash your hands") will create a "herd immunity" to the disease.

Sir Patrick Vallance said in an ideal scenario, 60% of the UK would become infected with Covid-19 to help us all be "a bit protected" from the virus.

The Government put a screeching halt to the policy when they were warned by scientists that pursuing it could lead to the deaths of 510,000 people from coronavirus by August.

Vaccinations create herd immuntiy. Credit: PA

Super-spreaderA term used to describe one person who appears to infect significantly more people than would normally be expected.

British businessman Steve Walsh was branded a Covid super-spreader and had his face plastered all over the front pages back in February after he picked up coronavirus while at a conference in Singapore.On his way back to the UK, he stopped off for several days at a French ski chalet, where five Britons were subsequently infected with the virus.He is also linked to at least five further cases of coronavirus in the UK, including two doctors, one of whom worked at a Brighton surgery that has closed its doors.

PPE became an everyday word. Credit: PA

PPE (personal protective equipment)

In pre-pandemic times, personal protective equipment, or PPE, was reserved for officials investigating poisoning plots, surgeons or blockbuster movies (for many of us, most of 2020 felt like being trapped in a Hollywood script) .

But PPE became an everyday essential - a lifesaver - for NHS staff, and a charged political issue, particularly in the early days of Covid reaching the UK when thousands of keyworkers reported being left without sufficient protective wear, forced to wash and reuse gowns because of shortages.

It has also come to light that Government PPE contracts have made some people very rich indeed, while tonnes of personal protective wear languishes in British ports. PPE is now also something we all wear in the form of face coverings.

Credit: PA

Contact tracing

In another lifetime, this might have sounded rather stalker-like, but in 2020 it was a key weapon in the fight against rising coronavirus case.

The aim of contact tracing is to track down people who have been in close contact with an infected person.

Health officials began contact tracing for every positive diagnosis of coronavirus after the first confirmed cases in January, but the policy was abandoned once the virus became too widespread.

Contact tracing is still not hitting the heights it needs to, with, on average, only around 61% of contacts of infected cases reached.