South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

Word of year? It’s no surprise: Pandemic

- By Leanne Italie

— In the land of lexicograp­hy, out of the whole of the English language, 2020’s word of the year is a vocabulary of one.

For the first time, two dictionary companies Monday — Merriam-Webster and — declared the same word as their top picks: pandemic. A third couldn’t settle on just oneword so it issued a

16-page report last week, noting that a world of once-specialize­d terms entered the mainstream during the COVID-19 crisis.

The year, Oxford Languages said in the report, “brought a newimmedia­cy and urgency to the role of the lexicograp­her. In almost real-time, lexicograp­herswere able to monitor and analyze seismic shifts in language data and precipitou­s frequency rises in new coinages.”

Its Oxford English Dictionary and others found themselves madly updating well beyond routine schedules to keep up. Such publicatio­n updates are usually planned in advance. Because the coronaviru­s pandemic brought on gargantuan language changes, according to Oxford Languages,

“2020 is a year which cannot be neatly accommodat­ed in one single ‘wordof the year.’ ”

Not so atMerriam-Webster and, both of which also noted shifts toward many other related words but announced just one.

Pandemic “probably isn’t a big shock,” saidPeter Sokolowski, editor at large forMerriam-Webster.

“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. It’s probably theword by which we’ll refer to this period in the future,” he said.

John Kelly, senior research editor at, said searches on the site for pandemic spiked more than 13,500% on March 11, the day the World Health Organizati­on declared an outbreak of the novel coronaviru­s a global health emergency.

The daily spike, he said, was “massive, but even more telling is how high it has sustained significan­t search volumes throughout the entire year.”

Month over month, lookups for pandemic were more than 1,000% higher than usual. For about half the year, the wordwas in the top 10% of all lookup on, Kelly said.

Searches for pandemic March 11 were 115,806% higher than spikes experience­d on the same date last year at, Sokolowski said.

Pandemic, with roots in Latin and Greek, is a combinatio­n of “pan,” for all, and “demos,” for people or population, he said. The latter is the same root of “democracy,” Sokolowski said. The word pandemic dates to the mid-1600s, used broadly for “universal” and more specifical­ly to disease in a medical text in the 1660s, he said.

That was after the plagues of the Middle Ages, Sokolowski said.

Sokolowski attributes the lookup traffic for pandemic not entirely to searchersw­ho didn’t know what it meant but also to those on the hunt for more detail, or for inspiratio­n or comfort in the knowing.

“We see that the word love is looked up around Valentine’s Day and the word cornucopia is looked up at Thanksgivi­ng,” he said. “We see a word like surreal spikingwhe­n amoment of national tragedy or shock occurs. It’s the idea of dictionari­es being the beginning of putting your thoughts in order.”

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