Searches for the word began to "tick up consistently" in January and spiked in March

By Rachel DeSantis
November 30, 2020 10:56 AM
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In a year that saw the coronavirus largely upend life as we know it, more and more people turned to the dictionary to help them get a better understanding of the flood of associated words that seemed to accompany every news story.

It’s little surprise, then, that Merriam-Webster has announced that “pandemic” is its 2020 Word of the Year.

“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,” the publishing company said.

Merriam-Webster said searches for “pandemic” began to "tick up consistently" on Jan. 20 and started spiking in early February, when the United States’ first coronavirus patient was released from the hospital.

As the virus worsened, the number of searches continued to grow, with the biggest spike coming on March 11, the day the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

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On that day, there was an 115,806 percent increase in lookups compared to the same day in 2019.

“That probably isn’t a big shock,” Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, told the Associated Press. “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 the word by which we’ll refer to this period in the future.”

The definition of pandemic is as follows, per Merriam-Webster: 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.

Its roots are Greek; pan means “all” or “every,” while dēmos means “people.”

Other words that spiked in 2020 include coronavirus, defund, mamba, kraken, quarantine, antebellum, schadenfreude, asymptomatic, irregardless, icon and malarkey.

Sokolowski said that the year was also historic in that it was the shortest period of time that Merriam-Webster has ever seen a word go from coinage to entry — COVID-19 was first used in February, and the company had a dictionary definition up 34 days later.

“Pandemic” follows previous words of the year including they, justice, feminism and surreal. The title is based on a statistical analysis of words that are searched online in extremely high numbers “while also showing a significant year-over-year increase in traffic.”