The 2020 Word of the Year is ‘pandemic’

A year ago when Merriam-Webster announced the 2019 Word of the Year, the choice was “they”. That idiotic choice was a sop to the woke among us who do not identify as either male or female. Previous winners in recent years include “justice” in 2018, “feminism” in 2017, and “surreal” in 2016.

Little did anyone know what was about to happen in 2020. ‘They’ seems as trivial of a choice as it should be viewed. Merriam-Webster bases its choice on a statistical analysis of words that are looked up in extremely high numbers in its online dictionary, showing a significant year-over-year increase in traffic. ‘Pandemic’ seems to be the most fitting of word choices this year.

The first big spike in dictionary lookups for pandemic took place on February 3rd, the same day that the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. was released from a Seattle hospital. That day, pandemic was looked up 1,621% more than it had been a year previous, but close inspection of the dictionary data shows that searches for the word had begun to tick up consistently starting on January 20th, the date of the first positive case in the U.S.

People were clearly paying attention to the news and to early descriptions of the nature of this disease. That initial February spike in lookups didn’t fall off—it grew. By early March, the word was being looked up an average of 4,000% over 2019 levels. As news coverage continued, alarm among the public was rising.

On March 11th, the World Health Organization officially declared “that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” and this is the day that pandemic saw the single largest spike in dictionary traffic in 2020, 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 ten months—even as searches for other related terms, such as coronavirus and COVID-19, have waned.

In the announcement, Merriam-Webster defines the word. It’s an epidemic that has spread to a large area and population. In this case, the virus originated in China and then traveled to Europe and the United States, and so on.

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

The Greek roots of this word tell a clear story: pan means “all” or “every,” and dēmos means “people”; its literal meaning is “of all the people.” The related word epidemic comes from roots that mean “on or upon the people.” The two words are used in ways that overlap, but in general usage a pandemic is an epidemic that has escalated to affect a large area and population.
The dēmos of these words is also the etymological root of democracy.

There were many words that fall into the runner-up category. My favorite is ‘malarkey’. It’s an old-school slam that I remember hearing from my grandmother. Sleepy Joe aptly used the slogan “No Malarkey” on the side of his campaign tour bus, back when he apparently planned to actually campaign for his job. Instead, the tour bus got very little use and Joe hunkered down in his basement for most of the presidential campaign. Joe Biden is malarkey personified.

The other words in the top 10 were coronavirus, defund, mamba — which saw a surge after the death of Kobe Bryant, kraken, quarantine, antebellum, schadenfreude, asymptomatic, irregardless, icon — which spiked after the deaths of John Lewis in July and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September, and — last but not least — malarkey. also named pandemic as the Word of the Year. The website calls it “the defining context of 2020.” Specialized language such as “social distancing,” “flatten the curve” and “herd immunity” has moved from being used by health professionals to use by the general public as everyone learns about the coronavirus pandemic. The website’s top words searched also include “Karen” (ahem!) and “doomscrolling.” I was not familiar with “doomscrolling”.

One of the most relatable experiences in 2020 established its popular name this year: doomscrolling, a term popularized by journalist Karen Ho for the act of compulsively checking social media for more bad news.

While we had been watching doomscrolling since the spring in the context of COVID-19, the term really asserted its staying power in the lexicon in August as people gawked at image after image of the apocalyptically orange skies over the Bay Area due to another year of record-breaking, climate-intensified wildfires in the region.

I guess in my area of the world, hurricane storm coverage would produce an increase in doomscrolling. For reference, in 2019, the Word of the Year was ‘existential’. At least it wasn’t “they”.

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