It has been a year of lockdowns, business and school closures, mask-wearing, and social distancing amid the coronavirus (COVID-19).
It’s no surprise that Merriam-Webster chose the word pandemic as the word of the year for 2020, as it continues to be used during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“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,” Merriam-Webster said on its website.
The word 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.”
It was chosen as the word of the year based on a statistical analysis of words that were searched in extremely high numbers in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, while also showing a significant year-over-year increase in traffic.
According to Merriam-Webster, the first big spike in dictionary lookups for pandemic took place on Feb. 3, the same day the first COVID-19 patient in the United States was released from a Seattle, Wash., hospital. On that day, pandemic was looked up 1,621% more than it had been a year prior.
Close inspection of the dictionary data shows that searches for the word had begun to tick up consistently starting on Jan. 20 — the date of the first positive COVID-19 cases in the United States. By early March, pandemic was being searched an average of 4,000% over 2019 levels.
March 11, when the World Health Organization officially declared that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic, was the day that pandemic saw the single largest spike in dictionary traffic this year — showing an increase of 115,806% over lookups on that day in 2019.
“What is most striking about this word is that it has remained high in our lookups ever since, staying near the top of our word list for the past 10 months — even as searches for other related terms, such as coronavirus and COVID-19, have waned,” Merriam-Webster said on its website.
Here are other top words of the year:
According to Merriam-Webster, this is a rare instance of a word moving from medical jargon to the general public’s everyday vocabulary. While it’s not a new word, coronavirus rocketed in searches in a span of a few weeks. The largest spike in lookups came on March 19th; and overall, coronavirus was looked up a staggering 162,551% more this year than in 2019.
“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,” Merriam-Webster wrote.
The word defund was key in many conversations about how to address police violence, and many activists called to defund the police. It was looked up 6,059% more in 2020 than in 2019.
After Kobe Bryant, along with nine other people including one of Bryant’s daughters, died in a helicopter crash, dictionary users searched for mamba, a word strongly associated with the player. Bryant was called “Black Mamba” — a nickname the player had chosen for himself more than a decade before. Overall, mamba was looked up 934% more frequently in 2020 than it had been in 2019.
In July, Seattle’s new National Hockey League (NHL) franchise chose kraken as its team name. Searches for the word increased 128,000% on July 23, when the name was announced. It also spiked in lookups again in mid-November, Merriam-Webster wrote, when lawyer Sidney Powell said she would “release the Kraken,” which in this case meant to present evidence that votes for President Donald Trump had been deleted in the presidential election.
Amid the global pandemic, there was interest in the word quarantine before stay-at-home orders became a reality in the United States. Quarantine was looked up 1,856% more frequently in 2020 than in 2019.
The word antebellum was looked up more significantly this year for two reasons in 2020. The first jump came in June, when the musical trio announced a name change from Lady Antebellum to Lady A. The second increase came with the September release of a movie that uses the word in its title.
The two events made for a year-over-year increase in lookups of 885%.
This word had a big spike in lookups in March when news of the collegiate admissions scandal broke. But its biggest single spike took place on Oct. 2, when President Trump had contracted the novel coronavirus and media used the word in its headlines. Such uses created a spike of 24,800% compared to last year’s lookups.
Another word related to the ongoing pandemic that saw spikes was asymptomatic — one of the virus’ most challenging characteristics that people without symptoms can be contagious. The word was looked up 1,688% more this year than usual.
This word earned a spot because lookups increased dramatically in July, up 464%, when actress Jamie Lee Curtis asserted on Twitter that Merriam-Webster had just entered the word. According to Merriam-Webster, Curtis was wrong, as the word irregardless has been in the dictionary since 1934.
President-elect Joe Biden used the word several times over the years — most recently in 2020 when he used its during a presidential debate on Oct. 22, when it spiked 3,200% over last year. He also used the word during the vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan in October 2012 and again during the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
The word of the year is a quantitative measure of interest in a particular word. The company reviews the past 12 months and combines an analysis of words that have seen a rise over the previous year with instances of intense spikes of interest due to news events.
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