The Washington Post asked readers to describe 2020 in one word or phrase. Here’s what they said.

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

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The disorientation we felt

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“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


“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

The despair we endured

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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.


“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, Tex.

The words we spoke

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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.

The changes we made, sometimes for the better

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“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 on 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.

How would you describe 2020 in one word or phrase? Let us know in the comments.

About this story

Editing by Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn and Zachary Pincus-Roth. Copy editing by Allison Cho. Design and development by Brianna Schroer and Matthew Callahan.

Eliza Goren is a Newsroom Audience Analyst at The Washington Post.
Shefali S. Kulkarni is the Digital Operations Editor for the financial and tech sections of The Washington Post. Prior to joining the Post, Shefali ran social media and audience engagement for BBC News' North America bureau and was the Social Media Editor for Newsweek.
Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn is the community editor at The Washington Post, with a focus on comments, live chats and reader submissions. She comes to The Post from Mother Jones, where she was the assistant editor for audience and breaking news.