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The Washington Post asked readers to describe 2020 in one word or phrase — here's what they said

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By ELIZA GOREN, SHEFALI S. KULKARNI AND KANYAKRIT VONGKIATKAJORN | The Washington Post | Published: December 18, 2020

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A global pandemic. A racial reckoning. A presidential impeachment. A monumental election.

We all know 2020 was a year like no other. But is it possible to sum it up in one word or phrase?

The Washington Post asked readers to do just that and offer their reasoning, hoping that all together we might discover some collective wisdom. To look forward, we also asked them what they were hopeful for going into 2021.

Over 2,000 responded. One New Jersey high school history teacher even assigned more than 100 students to share their take.

We've highlighted the words and phrases that were most revealing of our range of experiences and grouped them by theme. For some popular words, we included takes from multiple people, which you can see by clicking on the arrows.

Many of the words submitted reflect just how horrible this year has been. "Dumpster fire" was the sixth most common word or phrase, while "nightmare" was No. 11. But others were also popular, such as "surreal" (No. 5) and variations of the word "relentless" (No. 10). A few you might expect to see, such as "quarantine" and "doomscrolling," had to be left on the cutting-room floor, along with words we couldn't print in a family newspaper. Although many of us were physically more alone this year, the responses showed how much we shared in common.

Submissions have been lightly edited for length and clarity. Thank you to everyone who submitted.

The top three

• Exhausting

"All of our challenges have been drawn-out, slow-motion car wrecks. From covid, to the election, to Trump in general, to police shootings, to unemployment, to no sports, to some sports and no fans, it just keeps dragging on. I feel trapped in a corner, and all I can do is try to block the next thing that gets thrown at me."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"I am hopeful that we can remember that we are all on the same side in the bigger picture. I am hopeful we will stop using such extreme and hateful rhetoric to describe people we don't agree with."

Matthew Hirvela, 55, Plymouth, Mich.

• Lost

"We've lost our way as a country. The year was lost for students, families, weddings, holidays, positive human interaction. Lives were lost unnecessarily to disease. It feels like being lost in the wilderness with no compass."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Uniting the world would be the greatest of all accomplishments."

Jack Fleig, 72, West Salem, Wis.

• Chaotic

"Coronavirus, aftermath of general election, inability to acquire simple provisions like toilet paper, racial injustice, Trump and the GOP, Ruth Bader Ginsburg dying and being replaced against her wishes. Families being torn apart. I do not recognize this country anymore."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"My hope is for restoration of government to institutional norms. I look forward to Biden reversing many of Trump's harmful policies by executive order. I am hopeful for vaccines that will protect Americans from the coronavirus that has been allowed to run rampant during the Trump administration. ... I hope that we can rebuild faith in our democracy."

Maya Schneider, 40, Fairfax, Va.

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The disorientation we felt

• Relentless

"The hits just kept on coming. The good, the bad, the ugly. In our family, we shared birth and life-altering heart surgery and a decision to move that changed our family forever. There was much soul searching and out of it came monumental changes. The year was relentless, and we had to be the same. We could not allow ourselves to succumb. We had to find creative means of succor. Succor became survival."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Resolution. To the virus, to our political system, to the era of abject hate. And a sense of optimism — I'm really looking forward to relaxing my shoulders again. I'm hoping the country gets resolute, too — and acts to solve some of most pressing problems."

Deborah Carroll, 68, Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

• Surreal

"There have been terrible and beautiful moments in 2020 — but all of them seem larger and more disjointed than normal life progressions or conditions. Extraordinary situations and behaviors — by people, groups, even countries — have ruled the day."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Health for everyone."

Kristin Tesmer, 51, Dallas

• A television show that never knows when to end

"This year feels like one very long season of a TV show that keeps throwing random plot devices and crazy situations at viewers just to keep itself on the air. From covid-19, the presidential election, misinformation, George Floyd protests, beloved celebrities dying, and every other wacky event, this year just can't end quick enough."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Hoping to finally exhale."

Sarah Berg, 21, Denton, Texas

• Fallow

"This is how I have tried to think of this year, a fallow year, a time of temporary stillness. It is easy to think of this year as endless, but it will not be. We'll plant again, we'll grow again. But this year, we just had to ... stop."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"My husband and I got married this year — with a ceremony that wasn't anything like we had planned a year ago but was still perfectly us. We hope to conceive next year. I am excited to bring a new life into this world and hope that this time next year we will soon be growing our family."

Sam Phillips, 34, Los Angeles

• Limbo

"We're neither here nor there; neither hell nor heaven. Working toward normalcy and not sure if there will ever be what we've known as normal again."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Life. After being buried with dismay and cynicism for the past year, after seeing and feeling the dismissive dislike for each other, after witnessing a once great nation that pulled together now being pulled apart by words and actions that cannot be taken back, it seems that something as simple as life is sometimes all there is to cling to or hope for. Anything other than that would seem like a gift, maybe even a miracle."

Thomas Sheffield, 68, Wells, Maine

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The despair we endured

• Heartbreaking

"I lost a dear friend to covid, and I have lost precious time not seeing family and friends that I will not get back."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Availability to better health care for many. A sick nation cannot progress."

Theresa Grimes, 65, Ocala, Fla.

• What fresh hell is this?

"Every day seemed to debut some new, previously unimaginable disaster."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"A restoration of sanity, morality and normalcy."

Jeanette Thomas, 56, Reston, Va.

• Nightmare

"If you've ever experienced a nightmare that you struggled to wake up from and woke up screaming and covered in sweat, you would know why that word best describes 2020."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Never again seeing, hearing or reading about Trump."

Dan Hutchinson, 72, Portland, Ore.

• Broken dreams

"I retired last year so my husband who has primary progressive aphasia could spend some time traveling before his health declines to the point that he cannot. Time is not on our side. My sweet husband is losing the ability to communicate with others. We were planning to travel internationally on bucket list trips as well as visits to family and friends around the United States. Hopefully we can try again next year."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"The election, a vaccine, my daughter and her husband will be relocating to the DMV to set up a dental practice."

Karen M., 61, Annapolis, Md.

• Stifling

"I am a health-care worker who has to wear an N95 and goggles all day. I sometimes have to wear a second mask. It forces me to shout to be heard, and it is exhausting. I also have two small kids and a disabled husband who have had to be home a good portion of the year. It all feels literally and figuratively stifling."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"A vaccine. A new president and administration. Renewed belief in science, kindness and inclusiveness. Caring for the environment and our fellow humans."

Laurie P., 50, Westfield, N.J.

• Dumpster fire

"A government stoked the flames of racial and political division, an extraordinary failure in the face of a global health crisis and sensational media so biased it's tough to find the truth."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"There has been an awakening to the need for people to address the systemic racism in America — I hope people continue to have their voices heard and we can see real and lasting change take place. Also, I'd love to have our political parties find some civility, for science to be respected and for media outlets to calm down. And most of all, my wish is for the vaccine to be successful."

Kari Shimmel, 39, Berkley, Mich.

• A year of missing

"It has been a 'year of missing,' as my granddaughter so aptly put it — missing friends and family and life events, missing traditions and making new memories, missing feelings of well-being, joy, safety. All of these are important and necessary to living a good and healthy life. When things go missing in our lives, we are adrift, having lost our North Star, our moorings, our guideposts."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"I am hopeful for the return of civility and calm, for the impact that a vaccine will have, that once again we will feel joy and hope and love as everyday experiences in our lives. I am hopeful that we will remember 2020 and commit to living lives of gratitude, because of the gift of life that we have been given. I am hopeful that we will have learned to take nothing for granted. I am hopeful that what went missing in 2020 will be restored on both a personal and on a national level."

Linda Shelly, 79, Canyon, Texas

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The words we spoke

• I can't breathe

"It captures the desperation of George Floyd's final moments, and it also captures the despair of over 260,000 covid victims. And perhaps, it represents the alienation of 'the people' in a flaying democracy."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"I hope that as we debate about how to open our economy, our homes, our schools and even our respiratory systems that we also open our minds and our hearts. I'm longing for a spirit of decency and kindness to surface in 2021, and I hope it's as powerful as any vaccine."

Ann Ryan, 57, Syracuse, N.Y.

• You are on mute

"Happens during almost every video conference."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Returning more to offline work together with others."

Rafal Fabianowicz, 32, Budapest

• Ugh

"2020 has been a near-constant state of grief. The rising numbers of the pandemic, the murders of Black Americans, the 70 million people who support Trump, fires. Oh, and my job ended and before the next could begin funding was pulled. Turns out being a writer and artist will have to be a career plan."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"I'm most hopeful that it won't be 2020. But next that the hardships of this year will help us all see the true value in social equity, kindness and being informed citizens. I hope that beyond the thick walls of this tragic year, there will be shifting structures that help our society function in a way that's actually conducive to individual happiness and success. I also hope to get a puppy and have some tacos. Not simultaneously."

Bellamy Shoffner, 38, Charlottesville, Va.

• Six feet apart, yet closer than ever

"The coronavirus changed and took away a lot in our personal lives. However, one good thing that happened to me was being more social with others. If I were in school, I would stick to the same four close friends of mine. Whether it's texting or being in a breakout room during class, I am becoming more and more of a conversationalist."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Being in quarantine has made me realize how much I miss school, hanging out with my friends, dancing, etc. I'm currently a sophomore, and it is sad that my class and I have not been able to make it through a full school year of high school."

Sheerin Raina, 15, Edison, N.J.

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The changes we made, sometimes for the better

• Reckoning

"The U.S. has had to reckon in a harsh light with racism, the lack of federal health care, insufficient safety net, deep division and the overbearing of individualism to the point where what I want and freedoms I have will always outweigh the good of the community."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"Biden and Kamala Harris providing true, unified (as much as they can) leadership, a return to environmental protection rules. The United States still is a leader for democracy and the fight against climate change."

Elise De Grande, 36, Sacramento

• Transformative

"Forced me to look at my own humanity in relation to others on this planet, to accept my responsibility to behave as a moral, ethical and spiritual person, to care about others enough to wear a mask. I also had to come to terms with living in a country where more than 70 million people think it's OK for the president of our country to behave the way he has for the past four years."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"More compassionate leadership. I'm hoping the United States can once again become a place that welcomes and celebrates diversity, that cares for our environment, that values civil rights and human rights and public education, and that treats people from all walks of life with dignity and respect and grace. Also hoping to be able to travel again!"

Kim Gazella, 63, Raleigh, N.C.

• Perseverance

"This year has been one of anguish, fear and uncertainty, but if nothing else it's taught us to remain steadfast in our commitment to helping one another."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"I'm hopeful that everyone will come out of 2020 with a renewed sense of what's most important and we bring those values into the future."

Shannon Croy, 28, West Warwick, R.I.

• Crescendo

"A crescendo builds up slowly, often under a set rhythm or music. I'd say this year is definitely building up, getting louder — from the World War III threats in January to the pandemic now, it's definitely escalating. With crescendos, we tend to overlook the song itself, which is why the year passed so quickly. The set rhythm in the background of a crescendo keeps it controlled, and I'd like to believe that something is keeping all of us hopeful during these difficult times."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"I hope everything returns to a normal — not the normal that we knew, for that would be too much to wish for, but I hope everyone stays safe and feels safe next year. This year, many lost their jobs, their close ones and maybe even themselves, and I hope that by the time 2021 rolls around they're found — it's the least they deserve. I hope everyone can still stay close to their loved ones while social-distanced, and I hope everyone can find ways to smile to one another with a mask on."

Isha Gavas, 15, Edison, N.J.

• Daily search for little wins

"We live in NYC with three little children. With our daily routines upended, the pandemic forced us to find new ways to make their lives happy and fulfilling. We embraced the city's amazing parks, invented new activities like 'camping' in Central Park and forged new, lifelong friendships with people in our neighborhood. We prepared ourselves for outdoor activity no matter what the weather. Despite so much of life being in hold, we developed an even more intense appreciation and love for our city."

What are you hopeful for in 2021?

"While we look forward to life gradually returning to normal, we also hope to retain some of the resilience and inventiveness we discovered in ourselves this year. And we will always appreciate the close friendships and connections we made during this time."

Jeremy Estabrooks, 45, New York City

———

The best summation

• Like looking both ways before crossing the street and then getting hit by a submarine

"Because it's been the craziest year ever."

Clarke Smith, 9, Beverly Hills, Mich.