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Words of the Year


Word cloud with pandemic-related words

Among all the 2020 end-of-the-year compilations (best record, best book … ) were those produced by dictionary publishers choosing their word of the year. Not surprisingly, the language landscape—like so much in 2020—was enveloped by COVID-19.

COVID-related terms dominated the linguistic lists, with both Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com citing “pandemic” as their premier word. The choice reflected the top word searches on their online sites and the term’s transformative role in public communication. Words like “quarantine,” “coronavirus,” and “asymptomatic” also appeared on their lists.

Oxford Languages, publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary, said it wasn’t adequate to pick just one word, given the huge scope and impact of COVID-19-related language in 2020. So its report highlighted many ubiquitous terms; along with the obvious ones like “coronavirus,” it listed “remote,” “lockdown,” and “furlough,” as well as media-heavy phrases like “stay-at-home,” “social distancing,” and “flatten the curve.”

Also standing out: “Doomscrolling,” in which people compulsively scroll through social media stories consuming every last bit of increasingly dire news.

Additional terms chosen by the world’s word monitors underscored other explosive issues in 2020, including political elections and social justice. The Global Language Monitor announced “WHO” (World Health Organization) as the top name of 2020.

A few highly ranked searched words carried lighter connotations, such as this one on Merriam-Webster’s list: “kraken.” It comes with a sports context: When a new hockey team in Seattle, Washington, chose “Kraken” as its team name, on July 23, searches for the word increased 128% that day, according to Merriam-Webster.

And what exactly is a kraken? A mythical Scandinavian sea monster.


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