Pandemic Top Word of 2020

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

In just 34 days, “COVID-19” went from being newly minted to a term listed online by the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

That was record time, Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, told the Associated Press.

“That’s the shortest period of time we’ve ever seen a word go from coinage to entry,” said Sokolowski. “The word had this urgency,” along with a few dozen that were revised to reflect the health emergency. Although “coronavirus” was in the dictionary for decades, ‘COVID-19” was coined in February.

But “pandemic” took the prize as the 2020 word of the year, based on lookup spikes.

“Often the big news story has a technical word that’s associated with it and in this case, the word pandemic is not just technical but has become general,” said Sokolowski. “It’s probably the word by which we’ll refer to this period in the future.”

It also was a word that triggered staggering ethical choices over who got treatment, and eventually who got the first vaccines. On an individual level, it involved those who wore masks and those who refused. Such choices potentially could benefit or harm an entire community.

In such a wild year, the Oxford English Dictionary could not come up with one word of the year. Pandemics strike about once in a lifetime.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic and online lookups for the term jumped 115,806% higher compared with the same date last year. The word searches began in January and February when the first U.S. deaths and outbreaks on cruise ships became known.

Lookup traffic for pandemic, explained Sokolowski, does not entirely mean searchers did not know the meaning of the word but could be looking for more detail.

Coronavirus was among runners up for word of the year as it jumped into the mainstream. Here are others:

Defund – The term was looked up 6,059% more often than the year before as protesting Americans called for defunding police departments in the wake of police violence against Black Americans.

Quarantine – A period of time spent in isolation or restricted movement to prevent a contagious disease from spreading. In the time of the Black Death plague of the 1300s, ships coming into port would wait outside a city for 40 days to prevent disease. The “quar” in quarantine derives from 40 in Italian.

Asymptomatic – Showing no symptoms of illness. The term became popular in 2020 as the medical community discovered a viral quirk; a person could be infected with the coronavirus, not be ill, but could spread the infection to others.

Mamba – Searches for the word spiked after the January death in a helicopter crash of Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant, whose nickname was the Black Mamba.

Kraken – Lookups flooded in for kraken in July after Seattle’s new National Hockey League franchise chose the mythical sea monster for its name. The hockey expansion team ended 19 months of speculation over whether it would favor a name that was traditional or eccentric. The team’s colors are light and dark shades of blue. Fans favored kraken.

Antebellum – Country music group Lady Antebellum changed its name to Lady A, driving searchers to the online dictionary in June to check out the name.

Irregardless — Wordsmiths found another reason to haggle when Merriam-Webster decided to accept irregardless as a synonym for regardless, breaking with a long-standing rule that others might decide to keep observing. The Associated Press Style Book has long insisted that irregardless is a useless double negative and regardless is correct.

Icon – A person who is revered or idolized, a symbol. The word was used heavily in headlines after the deaths of U.S. Rep. John Lewis and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Schadenfreude – Enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others. Lookups about the word spiked when it was used in the news about celebrities caught in the college admissions scandal in March, and when President Trump contracted the coronavirus in October and lost reelection in November.

Malarkey – Exaggerated or foolish talk. President-elect Joe Biden used the word during the presidential debates with opponents. Slang. Origin unknown.

The Merriam-Webster site has about 40 million monthly users and about 100 million monthly page views.

Top word searches often signal a world’s worries. In 2019, the year’s top word was “existential,” as in existential threat, dealing with existence. It was applied to climate change, gun violence and democratic institutions. The 2020 pandemic made such threats more up-close and personal. Not only was it the world’s top news story, word searches reflected some interest in pandemicethical choices that went with it.


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