Word of the Year: “It’s ‘pandemic,’ probably how we’ll refer to this period in the future.”

From an AP story by Leanne Italie headlined “Merriam-Webster’s top word of 2020 not a shocker”:

If you were to choose a word that rose above most in 2020, which word would it be?

Merriam-Webster on Monday announced “pandemic” as its 2020 word of the year.

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

The word took on urgent specificity in March, when the coronavirus crisis was designated a pandemic, but it started to trend up on Merriam-Webster.com as early January and again in February when the first U.S. deaths and outbreaks on cruise ships occurred.

On March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, lookups on the site for pandemic spiked. . . .

Pandemic, with roots in Latin and Greek, is a combination of “pan,” for all, and “demos,” for people or population. The latter is the same root of “democracy,” Sokolowski noted. The word pandemic dates to the mid-1600s, used broadly for “universal” and more specifically to disease in a medical text in the 1660s, he said.

That was after the plagues of the Middle Ages, Sokolowski said.

He attributes the lookup traffic for pandemic not entirely to searchers who didn’t know what it meant but also to those on the hunt for more detail, or for inspiration or comfort. . . .

Coronavirus was among runners up for word of the year as it jumped into the mainstream. Quarantine, asymptomatic, mamba, kraken, defund, antebellum, irregardless, icon, schadenfreude and malarkey were also runners up based on lookup spikes around specific events.

Particularly interesting to word nerds like Sokolowski, a lexicographer, is quarantine. With Italian roots, it was used during the Black Death of the 1300s for the period of time a new ship coming into port would have to wait outside a city to prevent disease. The “quar” in quarantine derives from 40, for the 40 days required.

Spikes for mamba occurred after the January death of Kobe Bryant, whose nickname was the Black Mamba. A mass of lookups occurred for kraken in July after Seattle’s new National Hockey League franchise chose the mythical sea monster as its name, urged along by fans.

Country group Lady Antebellum’s name change to Lady A drove dictionary interest in June, while malarkey got a boost from President-elect Joe Biden, who’s fond of using the word. Icon was front and center in headlines after the deaths of U.S. Rep. John Lewis and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The Merriam-Webster site has about 40 million unique monthly users and about 100 million monthly page views.

Also see a previous post about the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year—it said there were too many to name just one.

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