Word of the Year: Pandemic
Words Matter: What Defines A Society
Attention all you wordsmiths in Leadville Today, the one-and-only Merriam-Webster Dictionary has announced what the word of the year – and runners-up – are for 2020! Some are obvious, but there are always those that make you say huh?! Check out these beauties as they make their way to an elite group of 470,000 entries.
Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher helping millions of people understand and use language better, has announced its Word of the Year for 2020: pandemic. While the COVID-19 pandemic that has defined 2020 in many ways might make the word seem like a natural choice, the selection is entirely data-driven: pandemic was looked up at Merriam-Webster.com in 2020 with remarkable frequency throughout the entire year and in numbers that far exceeded 2019 lookups.
In this exceptional year, the data was exceptionally clear: the story of the year is the word of the year. Other words also stood out in the dictionary’s 2020 data, and they too shed light on the experiences and ideas that shaped the year.
“Pandemic is the word that has connected the worldwide medical emergency with the political response and with our personal experience of it all,” says Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large for Merriam-Webster. “Words that might be part of our general vocabulary send us to the dictionary when they suddenly seem technical, medical, or legal. The word pandemic, though familiar, came into the news this year with an urgent specificity.”
Other top lookups include malarkey, an old-fashioned word that’s a favorite of President-elect Joe Biden, and one he used several times during the presidential debate in October. The word is defined as “insincere or foolish talk.”
Entertainment and sports also inspired people to turn to the dictionary. The word kraken saw a large spike in lookups when Seattle’s brand-new National Hockey League franchise chose the word as its team name. Nomenclature was also behind searches for antebellum. In June, an award-winning musical trio announced a name change: “Lady Antebellum” would now officially be called “Lady A”; and in September a horror movie using the word as its title was released.
The dictionary’s data also opened a window onto the thoughts of people processing the loss of some prominent and beloved Americans. Mamba rose high in the lookups when basketball great Kobe Bryant, whose nickname was Black Mamba, died in January, and searches for the word icon climbed in reaction to the deaths of both Representative John Lewis in July and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September.
“The words that rise to prominence when we examine our data at the year’s end always say something about our collective experience. In this case, the Word of the Year is one that has truly touched us all. Pandemic is not only an important medical term; it’s likely that this period of time will be forever known by this word,” says Sokolowski.
Listen to the Word Of The Year Podcast
A Society Defined: Pandemic
By Meghan Lunghi, Merriam-Webster Inc.
Sometimes a single word defines an era, and it’s fitting that in this exceptional—and exceptionally difficult—year, a single word came immediately to the fore as we examined the data that determines what our Word of the Year will be.
Based upon a statistical analysis of words that are looked up in extremely high numbers in our online dictionary while also showing a significant year-over-year increase in traffic, Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2020 is pandemic.
Pandemic is defined as: an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area (such as multiple countries or continents) and typically affects a significant proportion of the population
Rarely has a word moved from the jargon of medical professionals to the general public’s everyday vocabulary as quickly as coronavirus. Though not a new word, coronavirus rocketed from obscurity to ubiquity in a span of a few weeks.
The current pandemic is caused by a new, or novel, type of coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 in February. The name stands for “coronavirus disease 2019,” and was added to our dictionary in a special release of new words in March, giving COVID-19 the distinction of being the fastest term to go from coinage to inclusion in a Merriam-Webster dictionary—the process took only 34 days.
Other Word Contenders from 2020
Protests in response to the killing of Black people by police officers punctuated the year, and a word from those protests rose in lookups beginning in June: defund. The word was key in the many conversations about how to address police violence, as activists called for the defunding of police forces, and others tried to understand what that in practicality would mean. Overall, defund was looked up 6,059% more in 2020 than in 2019. We define defund as “to withdraw funding from.” The word is a recent addition to English, in use only since the middle of the 20th century.
In January, the world lost one of basketball’s greats: Kobe Bryant, along with nine other people including one of Bryant’s daughters, died in a helicopter crash. As news of the crash spread, dictionary users searched for a word strongly associated with the player: mamba. “Black Mamba,” he was called—a nickname the player had chosen for himself more than a decade before.
On July 23rd, Seattle’s brand-new National Hockey League franchise chose “Kraken” as its team name, hurling the word kraken into top lookup territory. Searches for the word increased 128,000% that day. A kraken is a mythical Scandinavian sea monster; the word, which comes from Norwegian dialect, has been used in English since the middle of the 18th century. Krakens have featured in various contexts more familiar to English speakers than Scandinavian folklore, including various iterations of krakens in Marvel comics and a memorable monster in “Clash of the Titans.”
As the reality of the global pandemic set in, policy responses received as much attention as medical analyses of this new disease. Accordingly, the biggest increase in lookups for one of the most important terms in this new circumstance, quarantine, was on March 20, nine days after the greatest spike for pandemic.
Quarantine means “a state of enforced isolation designed to prevent the spread of disease.” It came into English through the intersection of French and Italian influences; the French word quarantaine (“about forty”) was borrowed in the late 1400s with a meaning of “a period of forty days”; it later blended with the Italian word quarantena, meaning “isolation of a ship to protect the port city from potential disease.” The Italian term was first used during the pandemic of bubonic plague in the 14th century.
The word antebellum was looked up in significantly higher numbers for two distinct reasons in 2020. The first jump in lookups came in June, when an award-winning musical trio announced a name change: “Lady Antebellum” would now officially be called “Lady A.” The second increase came with the September release of a movie that uses the word as its title. These two events made for a year-over-year increase in lookups of 885%.
Schadenfreude is a word-lover’s word, one that pops up in spelling bees and vocabulary tests all the time. This is partly because it’s hard to spell, and partly because it’s fun to say out loud, although its pronunciation isn’t necessarily easy to discern for an English speaker. In fact, this entry’s audio pronunciation is one of the most clicked-on in our online dictionary. It’s pronounced /SHAH-dun-froy-duh/, by the way.
But this word is perhaps also popular among wordies because of its specific and slightly malicious meaning: “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” It had a spike in lookups in March when news of the collegiate admissions scandal broke, but the biggest single spike this year took place on October 2nd, when it was announced that President Trump had contracted the novel coronavirus. An example of this use came in the form of a headline from USA Today: President Donald Trump’s coronavirus infection draws international sympathy and a degree of schadenfreude
In this year when the public’s mind has so often been focused on COVID-19, the word asymptomatic is a reminder of one of the coronavirus’ most challenging characteristics—that people who are without symptoms can be contagious.
When all was said and done in 2020, the word irregardless had earned a spot in the Words of the Year pantheon—mostly just by having the temerity to be a word. While some will deem the word’s presence in this list as further evidence of how truly odious the year was, we in the dictionary business know that the word qualified for inclusion here because people care about language, and that’s worth celebrating.
Among those lost in a year of many painful losses were two individuals whose life’s work persisted long after they’d earned a restful retirement. As writers sought to eulogize first Representative John Lewis in July, and then Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September, they called upon the word icon to do so. The word saw significant increases in lookups in both instances, averaging 2,205% higher than last year.
Presidents can propel a word into the common vernacular—or at least the public eye. Ronald Reagan’s verbal tic of beginning responses with “Well…” and George W. Bush’s malapropism “misunderestimated” qualify, and President-e lect Joe Biden’s use of malarkey is on track to do the same. The word’s biggest increase in lookups in 2020 was when Biden used it during the presidential debate on October 22nd, when it spiked 3,200% over last year.
It’s clear that this word is a favorite of Biden’s. In fact, our research shows that he is quoted using it going back to at least 1983, and it has since become part of his personal rhetorical style. The word seems to resonate with Biden’s public image: folksy, a bit old-fashioned, and Irish-American.