South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
Word of year? It’s no surprise: Pandemic
— 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 Dictionary.com — 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 Dictionary.com, 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 Dictionary.com, 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 Dictionary.com, Kelly said.
Searches for pandemic March 11 were 115,806% higher than spikes experienced on the same date last year at Merriam-Webster.com, 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.”