Each year publishers of English dictionaries name their Words of the Year, the words or expressions that have generated the most interest over the last 12 months.
This year’s award winners are not surprising since they reflect the dominant story of the year, the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the choices, which are very different from the 2019 selections.
Quarantine: Cambridge Dictionary named “quarantine” its Word of the Year, noting that it “was the only word to rank in the top five for both search spikes (28,545) and overall views (more than 183,000 by early November). Also, the most highly viewed blog post this year was “Quarantine, Carriers and Face Masks: the Language of the Coronavirus,” which is the company’s ninth most viewed post over the past decade. Last year’s Word of the Year choice was “upcycling.”
Pandemic: Dictionary.com noted that search volume for pandemic “…sustained the highest levels on site over the course of 2020, averaging a 1,000% increase, month over month, relative to previous years.” The editors also noted that the term had spawned a related glossary of popular words, such as “PPE,” “contact tracing,” “herd immunity” and “shelter in place.” In 2019, the editors chose the word “existential.”
Lockdown: The editors at the Collins English Dictionary chose “lockdown” because “it is a unifying experience for billions of people across the world who have had, collectively, to play their part in combating the spread of COVID-19.” Collins registered more than a quarter of a million usages of “lockdown” this past year, against only 4,000 in 2019. This translates to an astonishing 6,000% increase in usage. Last year’s Word of the Year choice was “climate strike.”
Pandemic: Merriam-Webster also choose “pandemic,” noting that, by early March, search volume had increased an average of 4,000% over 2019 levels. On March 11, the day that the World Health Organization officially declared the pandemic, the lookups increased a whopping 115,806% over lookups on that day in 2019. And the number of lookups remained high all year. Runner-up words included “coronavirus,” “quarantine” and “asymptomatic.” Last year Merriam-Webster chose the word “they” as the Word of the Year.
The editors at Oxford Languages (UK) broke from tradition and said that no one word could encompass this past year. The editors stated that 2020 could not “neatly be accommodated” in a single word, so they reported “more expansively on the phenomenal breadth of language change and development over the year.” You can register to get their Words of an Unprecedented Year report here. Last year’s choice was “climate emergency.”
The American Dialect Society, which is credited with naming the first Word of the Year in 1991, typically announce its choice in early January. Last year they named the “(my) pronoun” as its Word of the Year and the singular “they” as its Word of the Decade (2010-2019).