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2020’s Word of the Year is an experience

| December 29, 2020 1:00 AM

Dictionaries’ and websites’ Word of the Year designations are rarely surprising. Based on look-ups and other indications of interest, sometimes newly added and always reflective of major national or world events, at the very least it's always been a word.

This year is different. Which is ironically in line with the typically atypical experience that is 2020.

Yes, both Merriam-Webster and designated a single word: Pandemic. But Oxford Dictionaries — the holy of English holies — designated not the word, but the entire experience of the pandemic as its word-but-not-word of the year, bringing all its related words along for the annual ride. Which if you think about it, is pretty much what the others' designating "pandemic" does anyway.

For the U.S. “pandemic” lookups first spiked on March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. The trend was already well underway. For all three dictionaries interest rose in January and February when those first cruise ships outbreaks resulted in tragic death tolls and headlines. Followed by those first overflowing hallways and exhausted doctors in Italy's hospitals.

By March 11, pandemic lookups on were 115,806 percent higher than the same date last year. Oxford Dictionaries reports that overall in 2020, pandemic lookups were 57,000 percent higher than in 2019.

Pandemic’s Latin and Greek roots combine “pan” (all) and “demos” (people or population). Demos is also the root of “democracy.” Use of "pandemic" dates to the mid-1600s, following the infamous plagues of the Middle Ages.

Oxford’s other pandemic-related words of the year include “coronavirus” — coined in 1968, but until this year seldom used outside medical contexts — and “COVID-19,” which Oxford noted was added to language dictionaries across the globe early in 2020.

Some of the more quirky words Oxford added are “Blursday” (you know, the way the days blended together while sheltering in place), “covidiots” (that one sure varies by perspective), and “doomscrolling.” The pandemic also turned once-obscure terminology such as “social distancing,” “lockdown,” and “flatten the curve” into household terms.

Another thing that was unusual in 2020 (as if we needed more) is that use of coronavirus and pandemic outpaced not only other big news items throughout the year, but also the most common nouns in English, such as “time.” Oxford says that’s very unusual, perhaps unprecedented.

Ho-hum. What else is new.


Sholeh Patrick is a logophile and columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at