The unusual question people were asking in 2020 (that had nothing to do with COVID)

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Ross McGuinness
·5 min read
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People march during a protest in London, Saturday, July 11, 2020, organised by Black Lives Matter, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, USA last month. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
People march during a Black Lives Matter protest in London in July. (AP Photo)

It was a year absolutely dominated by coronavirus, with Britons asking constant questions about COVID-19.

The public wanted to know everything about the pandemic, from face masks and self-isolating to the furlough scheme and lockdown.

Which makes it somewhat surprising that the most popular query asked by web users in the UK had nothing to do with coronavirus.

According to Yahoo Search data, the most asked online question in 2020 was: “What does woke mean?”

The data is comprised of total searches for all Yahoo Search UK users — which includes users not based in the UK but who have chosen to use Yahoo Search UK. Yahoo Search gets billions of searches per year, globally and in the UK we have hundreds of millions of searches and millions of users.

“Woke” has taken on social and political connotations in recent years.

Macro image of a person holding up the word 'woke'.
The most popular question asked by Britons this year was about wokeness. (Getty)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it means: “Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice."

The word was added to the OED in 2017, but it’s taken three years for it to become the UK’s most asked online question.

Wokeness became a part of the national debate this year as early as January, thanks to a controversial appearance on BBC’s Question Time by actor Laurence Fox.

He engaged in a heated argument with a female audience member, who had said the Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle was a victim of racism at the hands of some sections of the British media.

Fox responded by saying: “It’s not racism. We are the most tolerant lovely country in Europe.”

Watch: Laurence Fox clashes with Question Time audience member

When the audience member called Fox a “white privileged male”, he accused her of being racist.

The episode of Question Time received more than 250 complaints from the public.

In an interview with Talk Radio the week after the show, Fox labelled woke people as “racist”.

He said: “I think there is racism everywhere but I don’t think we are systemically racist – but then again I am a straight white male.”

Laurence Fox, leader of the Reclaim party, attends a Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Royal Artillery War Memorial in Hyde Park Corner, in London on November 8, 2020. - Remembrance Sunday is an annual commemoration held on the closest Sunday to Armistice Day, November 11, the anniversary of the end of the First World War and services across Commonwealth countries remember servicemen and women who have fallen in the line of duty since WWI. This year services have been cancelled or paired back due to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
Actor Laurence Fox launched an 'anti-woke' political party in 2020. (AFP via Getty)

In a separate interview in the days that followed his Question Time appearance, Fox said he refuses to date women under 35 because of their politically correct views, and that he once dumped a girlfriend for being “too woke”.

The woke debate was addressed by prime minister Boris Johnson in August, when he accused the BBC of “wetness” for announcing it would remove the lyrics of Rule, Britannia! from the Last Night of the Proms, following criticism its words refer to colonialism and slavery.

The BBC eventually reversed its decision and the lyrics were sung during the show at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

A demonstrator wears a face mask during a Black Lives Matter protest at Marble Arch, in London, Britain, July 12, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A demonstrator wears a face mask during a Black Lives Matter protest in London in July. (Reuters)

The Black Lives Matter movement has used the message, “Stay woke”, during its protests, which spread across the US and the UK in the summer following the death in May of George Floyd, an African American killed during an arrest in Minneapolis.

White police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee against Mr Floyd’s neck for almost eight minutes as Mr Floyd cried out, “I can’t breathe”. Chauvin has been charged with Mr Floyd’s murder and is awaiting trial.

The query about being woke aside, Yahoo Search data showed that almost all of the top 10 most popular questions asked this year related to COVID-19 - eight of the list were about coronavirus.

In second place overall, Britons asked: “How to make a face mask”.

There was fierce debate among politicians, health experts and scientists about face masks as the pandemic unfolded, with the government eventually making a U-turn on its policy to fall in line with nations in mainland Europe, who made them mandatory on public transport and many indoor settings.

The third most popular question was: “What does furlough mean?”, as British workers who lost income because of the pandemic tried to discover if they were eligible to receive 80% of their monthly pay up to £2,500 through their employers.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak extended the scheme on a number of occasions - it is currently scheduled to conclude at the end of April 2021.

The fourth most popular online search question was: “How many coronavirus cases in my area?”

When the government announced the introduction of the three-tiered system of restrictions in England, people quickly went online to find out what it meant for their everyday lives, which made “What is Tier 1/2/3/4?” the fifth most searched question.

Shireen Inglis wears a face mask whilst she has her hair worked on at The Lunatic Fringe in Glasgow as they demonstrate some of the changes put in place to help protect against coronavirus. Hairdressers across Scotland are preparing to reopen to customers on Wednesday as lockdown measure are eased.
Britons were eager to discover when hairdressers would reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. (PA)
Passengers wearing face masks or covering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have their temperature taken as they queue at a British Airways check-in desk at Heathrow airport, west London, on July 10, 2020. - The British government on Friday revealed the first exemptions from its coronavirus quarantine, with arrivals from Germany, France, Spain and Italy no longer required to self-isolate from July 10. Since June 8, it has required all overseas arrivals -- including UK residents -- to self-quarantine to avoid the risk of importing new cases from abroad. (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)
'What is normal body temperature?' was one of the most popular online search questions in 2020. (AFP via Getty)
File photo dated 14/3/2020 of a man uses hand sanitiser gel. A number of hand sanitisers have been found containing less alcohol than described via online marketplaces which could leave people unprotected against coronavirus, a Which? investigation has found.
Britons wanted to know how to make their own hand sanitiser. (PA)

The sixth most asked question, according to Yahoo Search, was “What is the R number?”

The R number, or reproduction number, measures the ability of the coronavirus to spread. It is the number of people that any one infected person will pass the virus on to, on average. Anything above 1.0 means the number of cases is increasing exponentially.

“When will hairdressers reopen?” was the seventh most popular question, followed by “What is normal body temperature?” in eighth and “How to make hand sanitiser” in ninth position.

FILE - This Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, file photo, shows as  logo of a smartphone app TikTok on a user post on a smartphone screen in Tokyo. Canadian e-commerce platform Shopify said Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, it’s made a deal with TikTok enabling merchants to create “shoppable” video ads that drive customers to online stores. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)
British web users wanted to know about TikTok in 2020. (AP Photo)

The final question to make it into the top 10 was: “What is TikTok?”

The video-sharing app became a phenomenon in 2020, emerging as a haven for social media personalities and A-list actors alike.

It spent long periods in the news in 2020 because of a battle over its status in the US, where president Donald Trump tried to ban the Chinese-owned app unless it was purchased by an American company, citing security concerns.

TikTok’s owners Bytedance have struck a preliminary deal with software company Oracle and retailer Walmart. Two judges have issued injunctions blocking the US government from banning TikTok there.

Watch: Judge blocks US ban on TikTok