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Dictionaries Choose ‘Pandemic’ as 2020 Word of the Year

In this Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, photo the word pandemic is displayed in a dictionary in Washington. Merriam-Webster on Monday announced “pandemic” as its 2020 word of the year. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)
In this Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, photo the word pandemic is displayed in a dictionary in Washington. Merriam-Webster on Monday announced “pandemic” as its 2020 word of the year. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)
Dictionaries Choose ‘Pandemic’ as 2020 Word of the Year
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Two major dictionary publishers have chosen pandemic as the 2020 word of the year.

Merriam-Webster and both declared their choices on Monday.

Merriam-Webster said its decision was based on the “extremely high numbers” of people who had looked up pandemic in its online dictionary in 2020. The word showed a major year-over-year increase in internet traffic, the company said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. The Merriam-Webster Learners’ Dictionary defines pandemic as an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world.

Searches for pandemic on the Merriam-Webster website rose more than 115,000 percent on March 11 compared to a year earlier. The dictionary’s choice of pandemic should not come as a shock to anyone, said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster.

Sokolowski told The Associated Press that major news events often have a technical word related to them. In the case of the coronavirus crisis, “the word pandemic is not just technical but has become general.” He added that pandemic is also a word that will likely be used in the future to describe this period in history.

Sokolowski noted that pandemic has roots in Latin and Greek. It is a combination of “pan,” meaning for all, and “demos,” for people or population. Pandemic dates to the mid-1600s, when it was used widely for “universal.” Around that time, it also began appearing in medical literature after the plagues of the Middle Ages, he said.

Sokolowski said the huge increase in interest did not appear to be only among searchers who did not know the meaning of the word. Many people were also hunting for more details about pandemic or were seeking for inspiration or to help ease their minds, he added.

Merriam-Webster said it acted quickly to add new information on words related to pandemic. The dictionary already had “coronavirus” for many years. But it added “COVID-19” - the disease caused by the coronavirus - about a month after that term was officially created in February.

In announcing its choice, said searches for pandemic on its website increased more than 13,000 percent on March 11. research editor John Kelly told the AP that searches for the word have remained high throughout the year. For about half of the year, the company said pandemic was in the top 10 percent of all search requests.

“The pandemic as an event created a new language for a new normal,” Kelly said.

As we recently reported, other dictionaries also chose COVID-19-related terms as their 2020 word of the year.

Britain’s Cambridge Dictionary chose “quarantine.” It said searches for the word increased in March, when many countries ordered public restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Cambridge said quarantine had taken on new meaning so it added to its definition. It now says quarantine is “a general period of time in which people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely, so that they do not catch or spread a disease.”

Collins Dictionary, another British publisher, chose “lockdown.” It said the word represents a uniting experience for people across the world. Under lockdown in 2020, Collins said “normal public life is suspended” and “we see few people, and fewer places.” It added that lockdown is now seen as “a public health measure.”

I’m Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

occurrence – n. something that happens

plague – n. a serious disease that spreads quickly and kills a lot of people

inspiration – n. someone or something that gives you ideas for doing something

allow v. to permit