Rarely does a single word so indisputably define an entire year, but pandemic is surely it for 2020.
The editors of Merriam-Webster Dictionary traditionally reveal their Word of the Year around December. It’s usually either a new addition to the English language (as in 2019 it was “They,” in its new form as a gender-neutral singular pronoun), or something that has come to define the cultural zeitgeist (as in 2017, with the word “Feminism”).
But in 2020, an historic year in which countless new terms have entered our everyday speech, one word was the undoubted champ: Pandemic.
While Pandemic is a clear winner, it wasn’t necessarily the obvious choice. About a week ago, Webster’s British rival, the Oxford English Dictionary, announced that it could not determine a single Word of the Year, and instead opted for a list of 2020-isms.
In the Americas, Webster released a list of 12 words that defined an unprecedented 2020, but pandemic took the top spot. According to its website, Webster’s selection was “based upon a statistical analysis of words that are looked up in extremely high numbers,” while “also showing a significant year-over-year increase in traffic.”
The first major spike in pandemic lookups began on February 3rd. That was the same day that the first COVID-19 patient in America was discharged from a Seattle hospital. According to Webster, pandemic saw a 1,621% increase in lookups in 2020 as compared to 2019. The American dictionary defines the term this way:
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.
Still, there are so many terms that have become synonymous with a year plagued by disease, civil unrest, political tumult, and the death of several beloved figures. Here’s what else made Webster’s list.
The pandemic in question, of course, revolves around a coronavirus we now call COVID-19. Back in January, many in the media referred to it as the novel coronavirus, since it was still a new disease. But by the end of a year that has felt more like a decade, nothing about this virus seems novel.
Following the death of George Floyd in May, the nation erupted in protest against systemic racism and for police reform. One chant that gained traction, and a fair amount of controversy, was the call to “defund the police.”
The word, which means “to remove funding from,” saw a 6,059% uptick in searches this year compared to last.
In January, basketball star Kobe Bryant died in a tragic helicopter accident. Subsequently, the internet was flooded with loving tributes to the player also known as “Black Mamba,” a nickname he gave himself over a decade ago. The mamba is a very quick, deadly snake, a perfect avatar for the stealthy basketballer.
This word received two lookup spikes in 2020, for two unrelated reasons. The first came in July, when the newly-formed Seattle NHL team chose Kraken as its official team name. The word refers to a fierce sea-monster from Norse mythology.
But kraken got a second boost in mid-November, after Sidney Powell, a then lawyer for the Trump presidential campaign, threatened that the president’s legal team was prepared to “release the kraken” on the judicial system. After Trump’s defeat in the general election, his team attempted to overturn the results with a series of lawsuits that have so-far been unfruitful. But Powell’s threat was itself a reference to the 2010 film Clash of the Titans, wherein the god-king Zeus directs his minions to unleash the monster onto his enemies.
As the world fell under stay-at-home orders amid the pandemic, the word quarantine became a common term to describe self-imposed isolation to curb the spread of disease. Webster says that lookups for quarantine began in February, following the first reports of COVID outbreaks aboard cruise ships.
During this summer’s protests for racial justice, countless brands reexamined their names and their language to weed-out outdated or racist terminology. Among them was the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum, which decided to rebrand as Lady A. It caused a massive spike in lookups for the word, which refers to the period prior to the American Civil War.
Webster refers to this German-cum-English term as “a word-lover’s word.” Notoriously difficult to spell and pronounce, it also holds a record on Webster for having one of the site’s most clicked-on audio pronunciations.
Schadenfreude refers to “enjoyment obtained from the trouble of others,” that’s to say, a sense of glee when you see another person’s misfortune. Lookups spiked in early October after President Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, after months of downplaying its severity. USA Today wrote at the time:
President Donald Trump’s coronavirus infection draws international sympathy and a degree of schadenfreude.
This word, which means “showing no symptoms,” gained much attention as doctors started to understand COVID-19. One of the virus’s trickiest traits is that people can carry and spread it even if they don’t show any obvious signs.
We’ve all had an English teacher who hated the use of this word, which many believe is not actually a word. But Webster’s progressive view on language holds that any term frequently used and understood by speakers deserves a place in the dictionary. Lookups spiked in July after actress Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted about the word, falsely believing that Webster had just added it to its website. But the word has actually been featured in one of Webster’s dictionaries since 1934, and has been present on its website since its inception. Irregardless, Curtis’s comment spiked much Twitter buzz and an onslaught of Webster lookups.
This year witnessed the death of several great Americans who have been described as icons. Congressman John Lewis, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and TV host Alex Trebek have all been eulogized with the title for their groundbreaking and memorable achievements. Icon refers to one who is “successful and admired, and frequently also representative of some ideal.”
In 2012, then-Vice President Joe Biden used the term in debate against Republican candidate Paul Ryan, and it has become one of Biden’s favorites ever since. In fact, “No Malarkey” was one of Biden’s earliest campaign slogans during his 2020 run for the presidency. Webster notes that lookups spiked after this year’s presidential debates, when Biden used it multiple times to downplay President Trump’s accomplishments.
While Biden claims that malarkey is old Irish slang with a meaning equivalent to “B.S.,” Webster cannot locate its exact origin. But it claims that the earliest recognizable use of the term is American and not Irish in origin, dating to the early 1920s.