Merriam-Webster Reveals Its Word of the Year 2020—and It's Not 'Coronavirus'

Merriam-Webster has revealed "pandemic" is its 2020 Word of the Year. According to Merriam-Webster, "pandemic" is defined 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 word "came immediately to the fore as we examined the data that determines what our Word of the Year will be," Merriam-Webster said in its announcement on Monday.

"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," he said.

According to Merriam-Webster, the first big spike in dictionary searches for "pandemic" came on February 3—the day the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. was released from a Seattle hospital.

But searches for the word on Merriam-Webster.com started picking up from as early as January 20, when the first positive coronavirus case was recorded in the country.

However, it was when the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak is a pandemic on March 11 that lookups on the site for "pandemic" spiked massively.

That day saw the single largest spike in traffic for lookups for the word in the year, with searches up 115,806 percent compared to the same date in 2019.

And the word has remained near the top of Merriam Webster's word list since, even as searches for related terms, including coronavirus and COVID-19, have waned.

Merriam-Webster
A Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is displayed in a bookstore November 10, 2003 in Niles, Illinois. Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Pandemic, which has roots in Latin and Greek, is a combination of "pan," meaning all, and "demos" meaning people or population. The latter is also the etymological root of "democracy," Sokolowski noted.

Merriam-Webster quickly added and updated its entries for words related to the pandemic earlier this year. "Coronavirus" was already in the dictionary, but "COVID-19" was only coined in February and was added in March.

COVID-19 "has the distinction of being the fastest term to go from coinage to inclusion in a Merriam-Webster dictionary—the process took only 34 days," Merriam-Webster noted in its announcement.

Other pandemic-related contenders for Word of the Year included coronavirus, quarantine and asymptomatic. Also among the runners-up were defund, mamba, kraken, antebellum, malarkey and schadenfreude.

People started increasingly searching the word "defund" from June amid protests against police brutality and racial injustice, while "mamba" became popular after the death of Kobe Bryant in January, whose nickname was the Black Mamba.

"Malarkey" got more lookups thanks to President-elect Joe Biden, who is known for using the word. "Schadenfreude" had its biggest single spike this year on October 2, Merriam-Webster noted, the day it was revealed that President Donald Trump had contracted the coronavirus.