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Merriam-Webster’s 2020 word of the year is ‘pandemic’—and it’s no surprise

By Brooke Villanueva Published Dec 01, 2020 3:44 am

Merriam-Webster’s 2020 word of the year is….

“Pandemic,” which “probably isn’t a big shock,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam Webster’s editor at large, said in an interview with Associated Press.

Merriam-Webster defined it 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 word started becoming a hot topic on earlier this year, when the first coronavirus cases and deaths were reported. 

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. This led to a significant increase in lookups—115,806% higher than the same date in 2019. From there, people’s interest in the word spark throughout 2020. 

In the same report, AP News wrote that Sokolowski linked it “to those who didn’t know what it meant but also to those on the hunt for more detail, or for inspiration, or comfort.”

He explained, “We see that the word love is looked up around Valentine’s Day and the word cornucopia is looked up at Thanksgiving. We see a word like surreal spiking when a moment of national tragedy or shock occurs. It’s the idea of dictionaries being the beginning of putting your thoughts in order.”

“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 this future,” said Sokolowski. 

Among the runners-up for word of the year are coronavirus, quarantine, asymptomatic, mamba, kraken, defund, antebellum, irregardless, icon, schadenfreude, and malarkey.

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