What’s the word for 2020?

Published 5:47 pm Thursday, December 31, 2020

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By Anya Sczerzenie

Capital News Service

After the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March, searches for the term skyrocketed. Eight months and over 62 million global cases later, two dictionaries have chosen “pandemic” as the 2020 Word of the Year.

Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster choose the word of the year based on search trends. It is intended to be a word that defines the past year. 

COVID-19 drove record searches on Dictionary.com for words like “asymptomatic,” “nonessential,” and “quarantine.”

“The pandemic has changed everything, including our language,” John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com, said in a news release. 

Kelly said that among all these words, pandemic is the one that defined life in 2020.

“All other events of the year, big and small, happened in the literal terms of the pandemic: how people voted, protested, or evacuated fires and hurricanes during the pandemic, for example,” Kelly said. “The pandemic economy, pandemic schooling, taking up pandemic baking, getting a pandemic puppy.”

The site said the pandemic helped create new terms such as “doomscrolling.” Merriam-Webster includes the term under its “Words We are Watching” but said it hasn’t met the criteria to be added to the dictionary yet. 

Merriam-Webster reported that other top search terms on its site this year were, respectively: coronavirus, defund, mamba, kraken, quarantine, antebellum, schadenfreude, asymptomatic, irregardless and icon.

Dictionary.com and its companion site Thesaurus.com began choosing a Word of the Day in 1999, which is displayed daily on the landing page of the website. The first Word of the Year on Dictionary.com, which was chosen for 2010, was “change.” 

Last year the word was “existential,” and in 2018 it was “misinformation.” 

“The actual etymology or history of the word pandemic suggests that it comes from the Greek words pan, meaning “all,” and demos, meaning “the people,” said Gregory Donovan, a Virginia Commonwealth University English professor and founding editor of the literary magazine “Blackbird.”

“The word pandemic has always struck me as insufficiently terrifying in terms of its sound, especially considering the widespread wave of severe illness and death that it represents,” Donovan said. 

The Oxford English Dictionary traditionally chooses a Word of the Year, but has described 2020 as “a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single word.” It marks the first time the Oxford English Dictionary has declined to choose a word of the year.