The top word searches this week on Merriam-Webster reflected the chaos in Washington, DC: sedition, coup d’état, fascism, capitol, breach, insurrection and more. But take a look at 2020, and you’ll see what dominated searches and our lives almost all year.
Quarantine. Lockdown. Pandemic.
No surprise that many of the words people searched for online in 2020 led back to COVID-19, according to the various dictionaries and online sources that track the topics we search for online.
Here are the Words of the Year for 2020:
Some 300 linguists, grammarians, writers and other word nerds took part in voting for the Word of the Year, choosing covid at the society’s virtual annual meeting in mid-December. “A year ago, the word Covid [shorthand for COVID-19] didn’t even exist, and now it has come to define our lives in 2020,” said Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS New Words Committee. Other related words in the running were doomscrolling, social distancing and unprecedented.
Cambridge Dictionary: Quarantine
Cambridge Dictionary bases its word of the year on reader searches. For 2020, COVID-19 choices led the race, with quarantine defeating lockdown and pandemic for top billing. The largest spike in searches for the meaning of quarantine came in mid-March, when many countries went into lockdown. The dictionary now includes a new meaning as synonymous for lockdown, a shift from the existing meanings related to “containing a person or animal suspected to be contagious.”
Collins English Dictionary: Lockdown
Collins creates an annual list of “new and notable words that reflect an ever-evolving culture and the preoccupations of those who use it.” For 2020, it chose lockdown, “the containment measure implemented by governments…to mitigate [ugh] the spread of COVID-19.” Collins registered more than a quarter of a million usages of lockdown in 2020, compared to only 4,000 the year before. Related shortlisted words included coronavirus, key worker and furlough.
As “documenters of the English language,” Dictionary.com found one word kept running through the way our lives were upended in 2020: Pandemic, “a disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world.” Searches for the word skyrocketed 13,575% in early March compared to 2019 and it was in the top 10% of all lookups for much of the rest of the year.
Global Language Monitor: Covid-19
GLM chooses a word of the year based on statistical analysis of trends in language use worldwide. For 2020, they chose Covid-19 as the top word and Work at Home the top phrase. Related words in the running included coronavirus, new normal and lockdown.
Merriam-Webster tallies which words were looked up more each year than the previous year. Based on that and the extremely high number of lookups in its online dictionary, M-W chose pandemic. By early March the word was looked up about 4,000% over 2019 levels. “What is most striking about this word is that it has remained high in our lookups ever since, staying near the top of our word list for the past ten months—even as searches for other related terms, such as coronavirus and COVID-19, have waned,” the website says.
Not choosing a single word, but going with a theme related to COVID-19 are:
The Oxford Word of the Year reflects the mood or preoccupations of the year. Oxford explains, “One of the many consequences of the current Covid-19 crisis is that it has focused the entire global conversation on a single subject in a way that has rarely happened before.” The theme of Covid-19 reflects that words frequently used around the world in 2020 included coronavirus, covid-19, lockdown, pandemic, self-isolation and quarantine.
Meanwhile, in other word news:
While this Australian foundation named alternative facts (lies) the Worst Word of the Decade, COVID-19 featured in its 2020 list. Other pandemic-related examples of “poor public language” include vertical consumption (easing pandemic restrictions by allowing people to drink in bars while standing up) and discretionary essentials (an oxymoron where people working from home spent big on home renos and office supplies).
Lake Superior State University in Michigan doesn’t post a Word of the Year, but instead shares words they say should be banished for “misuse, overuse, and uselessness,” according to us, the public. (Feel free to submit your own suggestions for the next end-of-year list!) For 2020, among the seven of 10 words related to the pandemic, including “COVID-19” itself, are: abundance of caution (just what is the standard measurement for caution, and is it metric or Imperial?); pivot (“basketball players pivot; let’s keep it that way”); uncertain times (“What exactly does it mean for times to be uncertain? Look at a clock!”); and unprecedented (banished in 2002, but on the list again after being “nominated so many times for misuse in describing events that do have precedent”).
What words would you banish? What words captured your mood in 2020?
Image by Pete Linforth and Pixabay.