Dictionary.com today announced it has named pandemic the 2020 Word of the Year. The choice encapsulates an unprecedented year in which the COVID-19 pandemic profoundly impacted every sector of society and defined the context for all the many other consequential events of the year, including racial injustice, an economic downturn, climate disaster, political division, and rampant disinformation. And just as the pandemic upended life in 2020, it also reshaped language, requiring a new vocabulary for a new reality. The event drove not only record searches for new or unfamiliar terms, but a record in the number of related additions made to Dictionary.com.
“The pandemic has changed everything, including our language,” said John Kelly, Senior Research Editor at Dictionary.com. “From the technical lingo of asymptomatic to coinages like doomscrolling, the pandemic suddenly generated a new shared vocabulary for a new lived experience. All other events of the year, big and small, happened in the literal terms of the pandemic: how people voted, protested, or evacuated fires and hurricanes during the pandemic, for example, or how people canceled trips and postponed weddings planned before the pandemic. The pandemic characterized all our activities, from the macro level down to personal decisions: the pandemic economy, pandemic schooling, taking up pandemic baking, getting a pandemic puppy. As a dictionary, our choice was overwhelmingly clear: pandemic defined 2020.”
Pandemic defines 2020 and changes the Dictionary
A pandemic is defined as “a disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent or the whole world.” Derived from Greek roots that mean “all people,” the word’s origin proved unquestionably literal this year. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. That day, searches for pandemic skyrocketed over 13,500% on Dictionary.com compared to 2019. Pandemic joined a cluster of other technical terms users searched in massive numbers, whether to learn an unfamiliar word used during a government briefing or to process the swirl of media headlines, including asymptomatic, CDC, coronavirus, furlough, nonessential, quarantine, and sanitizer. As quarantine orders went into effect, a creative new vocabulary emerged to describe the shared experience of our new normal, such as coronababy, drive-by birthday, quaranteam, maskne, and Zoom fatigue.
The abrupt and substantial addition of new language needed for life in the time of Coronavirus, from new terms like COVID-19 to newly prominently technical terms like social distancing to a host of corona slang words—and the corresponding searches for those terms—was unlike any language change seen before by Dictionary.com. To reflect these additions and bring context and clarity to them, lexicographers updated Dictionary.com twice since the start of the year, an extremely rare occurrence for so many new terms in such short order. But of all these many queries, search volume for pandemic sustained the highest levels on the site over the course of 2020, averaging a 1000% increase, month over month, relative to previous years. It remained in the top 10% of all lookups for much of the year since.
Pandemic: The defining context for 2020
While the pandemic continues to wreak social and economic disruption on a historic scope and scale, the other major events that took place in 2020—from an impeachment trial to the brutal killing of George Floyd to the historic U.S. election—also drove users to Dictionary.com for more information. Still, all of these momentous events took place in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything from news headlines to advertisements to casual speech registered the totality of the pandemic by framing all of the events in terms of before, during, amid, and since the pandemic.
For the first time, Dictionary.com is also unveiling a full list of the words that trended each month throughout the historic year and the background behind these searches. They are:
- January – pettifogging
- February – acquit
- March – quarantine
- April – social distancing
- May – conspiracy theory
- June – defund
- July – Karen
- August – doomscrolling
- September – absentee vote
- October – superspreader
- November – unprecedented
“When we look back on 2020, it will be through the lens of how COVID altered our lives in significant ways, one of which is how rapidly language evolved during the pandemic,” said Jennifer Steeves-Kiss, Dictionary.com CEO. “Dictionary.com is a trusted resource not only for words themselves but up-to-date context and information about how they reflect the changing world around us.”
To see the full Dictionary.com Year in Review, featuring more word additions driven by the pandemic, as well as all 2020 lookups by month, click here.
This year, in addition to choosing its own word, Dictionary.com invites users to submit their candidate for the word they feel best sums up an eventual 2020 here. Fans will also have an opportunity to tell their pandemic stories on social media, with one lucky winner earning a year subscription to the company’s writing tool, Grammar Coach, as well as other prizes.