Last week, the annual 新語・流行語大賞 (Shingo, Ryūkōgo Taishō, New Words and Buzzwords Awards) were announced and the outcome was one you’d never have predicted in January.

去年は「One Team」が流行語大賞だったので、今年はオリンピック関連の言葉の入選が期待されたが、結局コロナ関係の言葉がトップ10の半数以上を占めた (Kyonen wa “wan chīmu” ga ryūkōgo taishō datta node, kotoshi wa orinpikku kanren no kotoba no nyūsen ga kitai sareta ga, kekkyoku korona kankei no kotoba ga toppu ten no hansū ijō o shimeta, Last year, “One Team” won the top prize for buzzwords, and this year it was expected that Olympics-related words would be chosen, but in the end coronavirus-related words comprise more than half of the top 10).

A lot of us are using many 新語 (shingo, new words) because of the pandemic. While they weren’t recognized in the awards, 感染拡大 (kansen kakudai, spread of infection) 自粛 (jishuku, self-restraint) and 新型コロナウイルス (shingata koronauirusu, novel coronavirus) have all been a part of our conversations at one point.

But the 流行語 (ryūkōgo, buzzword) part of the 新語 ・ 流行語大賞 is what guarantees a more lighthearted approach to the yearly picks, and this year’s winner was 3密 (sanmitsu), the three “mitsu” that Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike pushed to prevent the spread of COVID-19: 密閉空間 (mippei kūkan, closed spaces), 密集場所 (mishū basho, crowded places) and 密接場面 (missetsu bamen, close-contact settings). In English, these are known as the “Three Cs.” It’s also worth noting that the term 3密 is also referred to as 3つの密 (mitsu no mitsu), which includes a pun to make the campaign that much catchier.

Linguist Hideho Kindaichi refers to “3高” (san-kō, three highs) that a woman may hope for in a partner — 高学歴 (kō-gakureki, highly educated), 高収入 (kō-shūnyū, a high income) and 高身長 (kō-shinchō, height) — as having a similar linguistic hook.

「いくつかある大切な項目をまとめる言い方が日本語にはあって、得意技ともいえる」 (Ikutsuka aru taisetsuna kōmoku o matomeru iikata ga Nihongo ni wa atte, tokuiwaza to mo ieru, “There’s a method of speaking in Japanese that allows lumping together several important items into a phrase, it’s kind of our signature move”), he says.

Also joining the A-list of 2020 buzzwords is the mythical creature アマビエ (Amabie), whose visage is thought to keep disease at bay; the Netflix show “愛の不時着” (Ai no Fujichaku, “Crash Landing on You”), which spurred 第4次韓流ブーム (dai yo-ji kanryū būmu, the fourth wave of the Korean [entertainment] boom); the relaxing video game あつ森 (Atsumori, short for Atsumare: Dōbutsu no Mori — Animal Crossing: New Horizons) and アベノマスク (Abenomasuku).

That last one refers to the face masks that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent out earlier in the year but, like 3密, has a punny element to it that would make Kindaichi proud. アベノマスク can mean 安倍のマスク (Abe no masuku, Abe’s mask), with の as the possessive particle. However, it’s also a play on the former prime minister’s signature Abenomics policy. Then, after distribution of the masks was delayed, the term took on a third meaning of no Abe masks, as in none.

Another word coming from the government, of course, is GoToキャンペーン (Go To kyanpēn, Go To travel campaign), which offers a fairly large discount on trips to boost the domestic economy amid the pandemic.

Another popular word that didn’t make the top 10 is 巣ごもり生活 (sugomori seikatsu, nesting life), which came about from having to stay home during the pandemic. That led to a lot of life being lived on the internet and another 流行語: “オンライン〇〇” (onrain maru-maru, online something-something). The word can be applied to many activities: オンライン診療 (onrain shinryō, online medical treatment), オンライン面接 (onrain mensetsu, online job interview), オンライン飲み会 (onrain nomikai, online drinking party) and so on. Thanks to the transition to life online, many companies made work and communication available without commuting to the office, so テレワーク (terewāku, telework) or リモートワーク (rimōto wāku, remote work) became a reality for many.

Maybe it was because of all this time inside that another trend went in the opposite direction of オンライン化 (onrainka, the transition to online), drawing people to another 流行語 winner: ソロキャンプ (soro kyanpu, solo camping). For those who aren’t ready to rough it in nature, グランピング (guranpingu, glamping, a portmanteau of “glamour” and “camping”) grew in popularity this year. Either way, it was a great way to escape the city while keeping 3密 in mind.

Rounding off the top 10 流行語 of the year, the world of entertainment provides our final two terms. One was “鬼滅の刃” (Kimetsu no Yaiba, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba”), a movie that made headlines for its box office in a year when Hollywood was hit hard. The other word, フワちゃん (Fuwa-chan, Fuwa-chan), was a surprise. It’s the stage name of Haruka Fuwa, an energetic and cheerful entertainer who made the jump from YouTube to the mainstream media. In August, she appeared with Gov. Koike to promote 3密 and the 新たな日常 (aratana nichijō, new normal).

Japan is now seeing the number of new COVID-19 infections rise in what is being called the コロナ第3波 (korona dai san-pa, third wave of coronavirus [infections]), so perhaps it would be better to send your 年賀状 (nengajō, new year postcards) with a picture of an アマビエ instead of an ox for 2021.

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