In the land of lexicography, of the entire English language, the word of the year 2020 is a vocabulary of one.
For the first time, two dictionary companies on Monday, Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com, declared the same word as their main names: pandemic. A third party couldn’t settle for just one, so it issued a 16-page report along the same lines, noting that a world of once-specialized terms entered the mainstream during the COVID-19 crisis.
The year, Oxford Languages said in last week’s report, “brought a new immediacy and urgency to the role of the lexicographer. Almost in real time, the lexicographers were able to monitor and analyze seismic changes in language data and skyrocketing frequency increases in new mints. ”
His Oxford English Dictionary and others found themselves crazily updating far beyond routine schedules to keep up.
These post updates are often planned well in advance. Because the coronavirus pandemic triggered gigantic language changes, according to Oxford Languages, “2020 is a year that cannot be neatly accommodated in a single ‘word of the year.’
Not so at Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com, which also noticed huge shifts toward many other related words, but announced only one.
The pandemic “is probably not a huge shock,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-in-chief, told The Associated Press before the announcement.
“Often the big news has a technical word associated with it. And, in this case, the word pandemic is not just technical, it has become widespread. It is probably the word we will use to refer to this period in the future, ”he said.
John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com, told the AP before releasing the news that searches on the pandemic site jumped more than 13,500% on March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared an outbreak of the new coronavirus as global health.
The daily increase, he said, was “massiveBut even more telling is how high it has maintained significant search volumes throughout the year. “
Month over month, pandemic searches were more than 1,000% higher than usual. For about half the year, the word was in the top 10% of all searches on Dictionary.com, Kelly said.
Similarly, on Merriam-Webster.com, pandemic searches on March 11 were 115.806% higher than the peaks experienced on the same date last year, Sokolowski said.
Pandemic, with roots in Latin and Greek, is a combination of “bread” for everyone and “demos” for the people or the population, he said. The latter is the very root of “democracy,” Sokolowski said.
The word pandemic dates back to the mid-1600s, and it was used widely for “universal” and more specifically for disease in a medical text in the 1660s, he said.
That was after the plagues of the Middle Ages, Sokolowski said.
He attributes the search traffic of a pandemic not just to search engines who didn’t know what it meant, but also to those who were looking for more details, or inspiration, or comfort in knowledge.
“We see the word love being searched around Valentine’s Day and the word cornucopia being searched around Thanksgiving,” Sokolowski said. “We see a word as surreal when a moment of national tragedy or upheaval occurs. It is the idea that dictionaries are the beginning to put your thoughts in order ”.
Kelly said the pandemic made us worth a chat with Dr. Anthony Fauci as our knowledge of all things related to the pandemic, aerosols, contact tracing, social distancing and herd immunity increased, along with the complexities of therapeutic drugs, tests and vaccines that can help save lives.
“All of this was part of a new shared vocabulary that we needed to keep ourselves safe and informed. It’s amazing, ”said Kelly, who works with a team of lexicographers to find the words of the year based primarily on site traffic.
Merriam-Webster began designating a word of the year in 2008, with “ransom.” The company’s word of the year for 2019 was ‘they’, when a changing use of the personal pronoun was a hot topic and searches were up 313% in 2019 over the previous year.
Dictionary.com has been in the word of the year game since 2010, with “change.” His word of the year in 2019 was “existential” in a year in which climate change, gun violence, the very nature of democracy, and a distraught little movie star named Forky from Disney’s “Toy Story 4” helped drive search peaks.
Oxford went with two words last year: climate emergency.
Kelly, Sokolowski, and Oxford Languages saw other valuable search trends beyond the pandemic. Following George Floyd’s May 25 death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, words around racial justice experienced spikes, including fascism, anti-fascism, underfunding and white frailty, Kelly said.
“There was no way we were leaving that out of the conversation this year,” he said.
Oxford included a range in its report, from “karen” to “QAnon”.
But it was everything about the pandemic that ultimately won the annual draw for words.
Jennifer Steeves-Kiss, CEO of Dictionary.com, said a key ingredient in finding the word of the year on the site is sustained interest over time. Pandemic met that standard.
“This has affected families, our work, the economy”, said. “It really became the logical choice. It has become the context through which we have had dialogue throughout 2020. It is the direct line of discourse ”.