Shared from the 12/1/2020 Philadelphia Inquirer - Philly Edition eEdition

Two dictionary companies were on the same page.

They summed up 2020 in one word: Pandemic


“Pandemic” was selected as the word of the year by Merriam-Webster and The Oxford English Dictionary couldn’t narrow it down to just one word, so it issued a 16-page report. JENNY KANE / AP

NEW YORK — In the land of lexicography, out of the whole of the English language, 2020’s word of the year is a vocabulary of one.

For the first time, two dictionary companies on Monday — Merriam-Webster and — declared the same word as their tops: pandemic. A third couldn’t settle on just one so it issued a 16-page report, noting that a world of once-specialized terms entered the mainstream during the COVID-19 crisis.

The year, Oxford Languages said in the report last week, “brought a new immediacy and urgency to the role of the lexicographer. In almost real-time, lexicographers were able to monitor and analyze seismic shifts in language data and precipitous frequency rises in new coinages.”

Its Oxford English Dictionary and others found themselves madly updating well beyond routine schedules to keep up. Such publication updates are usually planned far in advance. Because the coronavirus pandemic brought on gargantuan language changes, according to Oxford Languages, “2020 is a year which cannot be neatly accommodated in one single ‘word of the year.’ ”

Not so at Merriam-Webster and, both of which also noted enormous shifts toward many other related words but announced just one nonetheless.

Pandemic “probably isn’t a big shock,” Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, told the Associated Press ahead of the announcement.

“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.

John Kelly, senior research editor at, told the AP before breaking the news that searches on the site for pandemic spiked more than 13,500% on March 11, the day the World Health Organization declared an outbreak of the novel coronavirus a global health emergency.

The daily spike, he said, was “massive, but even more telling is how high it has sustained significant search volumes throughout the entire year.”

Month over month, lookups for pandemic were more than 1,000% higher than usual. For about half the year, the word was in the top 10% of all lookup on, Kelly said.

Similarly, at , searches for pandemic on March 11 were 115,806% higher than spikes experienced on the same date last year, Sokolowski said.

Pandemic, with roots in Latin and Greek, is a combination of “pan,” for all, and “demos,” for people or population, he said. The latter is the same root of “democracy,” Sokolowski said. 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 in the knowing.

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