The word “pandemic” has been an oft-repeated word in daily conversation since March, as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic slowly gripped the world.
The word has now been designated as the Word of the Year by both Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com. And there’s no better word to sum up 2020 than “pandemic”, with this year being both unusual and weird and its activities.
Both companies announced that the word had informed top searches on both sites, and reshaped the language people use on a daily basis.
Dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster said that people looked up “pandemic” with “remarkable frequency” throughout the year, particularly on 11 March, when the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. On that day, searches for the word spiked by about 115,806% compared to the same day in 2019.
Moreover, Dictionary.com said that “pandemic” is the “defining context of 2020”. Now, terms like “social distancing”, “flatten the curve”, and “herd immunity” are not just used by health professionals. The public understands them, too.
John Kelly, Senior Research Editor at Dictionary.com, told the Associated Press that the searches on the site for pandemic spiked more than 13,500% on 11 March.
He added that month over month, lookups for “pandemic” were more than 1,000% higher than usual. For about half the year, the word was in the top 10% of all lookups on Dictionary.com.
The pandemic, Kelly said, made us all worthy of water cooler chatter with Anthony Fauci, as our knowledge grew about all things pandemic. This includes aerosols, contact tracing, social distancing and herd immunity, along with the intricacies of therapeutic drugs, tests and vaccines that can help save lives.
“These were all part of a new shared vocabulary we needed to stay safe and informed,” he added.
Pandemic, with roots in Latin and Greek, is a combination of “pan” for all, and “demos” for people or population. The word pandemic dates to the mid-1600s, and is used broadly for “universal”. It took its specific health-related meaning from a medical text in the 1660s.
Meanwhile, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has been unable to name its traditional word of the year for 2020, instead exploring how far and how quickly the language has developed this year.
It quickly became apparent that 2020 is not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single ‘word of the year’, the OED said, with the language adapting “rapidly and repeatedly”.
According to an OED report, from March onward, terms related to the coronavirus pandemic started to dominate, including “COVID-19”, a completely new word first recorded on 11 February. Other new words that have been prevalent this year include “lockdown”, “social distancing”, and “reopening”.
The OED and other dictionaries found themselves urgently updating well beyond routine schedules to keep up. Such publication updates are usually planned far in advance. Because the coronavirus pandemic brought on gargantuan language changes, according to the OED, “2020 is a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single `word of the year’.”
The OED named “climate emergency” as word of the year in 2019, and “toxic” in 2018.
However, the three dictionaries noted other worthy search trends beyond the pandemic. After the 25 May death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, words around racial justice experienced spikes, including fascism, anti-fascism, defund and white fragility.