pandemic: life upended, language transformed

2020 has been, well, a lot.

At Dictionary.com, the task of choosing a single word to sum up 2020—a year roiled by a public health crisis, an economic downturn, racial injustice, climate disaster, political division, and rampant disinformation—was a challenging and humbling one.

But at the same time, our choice was overwhelmingly clear. From our perspective as documenters of the English language, one word kept running through the profound and manifold ways our lives have been upended—and our language so rapidly transformed—in this unprecedented year.

That word is pandemic, our 2020 Word of the Year.

What word sums up 2020 for you? Enter our contest to submit your choice!

How pandemic defined 2020

As most of us now know painfully well, a pandemic is defined as “a disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world.” And yet, the loss of life and livelihood caused by the COVID-19 pandemic defies definition.

With over 60 million confirmed cases, the pandemic has claimed over one million lives across the globe and is still rising to new peaks. The pandemic has wreaked social and economic disruption on a historic scale and scope, globally impacting every sector of society—not to mention its emotional and psychological toll. All other events for most of 2020, from the protests for racial justice to a heated presidential election, were shaped by the pandemic. Despite its hardships, the pandemic inspired the best of our humanity: resilience and resourcefulness in the face of struggle. And we thought 2019 was an existential year …

This upheaval was reflected in our language, notably in the word pandemic itself. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the first caused by a coronavirus. “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom observed of this momentous announcement.

That day, when COVID-19 had then only taken 4,291 lives around the world, searches for pandemic skyrocketed 13,575% on Dictionary.com compared to 2019. Pandemic joined a cluster of other terms that users searched in massive numbers, whether to learn an unfamiliar word used during a government briefing or to process the swirl of media headlines: asymptomaticCDCcoronavirusfurloughnonessentialquarantine, and sanitizer, to spotlight a few.

But of all these many queries, search volume for pandemic sustained the highest levels on site over the course of 2020, averaging a 1000% increase, month over month, relative to previous years. Because of its ubiquity as the defining context of 2020, it remained in the top 10% of all lookups for much of the year since.

At the start of 2020, it was unthinkable that parents would need to have a serious conversation about the word pandemic—a word which may have previously felt like a term from the history books—to their children around the dinner table. It was unfathomable that, by the year’s end, the word pandemic would become part of our everyday speech to the point of overfamiliarity, even fatigue.

How rare it is for the origin of a word—with pandemic ultimately coming from the Greek pân, “all,” and dêmos, “people”—to prove so literal. Without a doubt, the pandemic affected all of us, all over the world, in nearly all aspects of our lives.

How pandemic changed the dictionary

The pandemic defined 2020, and it will define the years to come. It is a consequential word for a consequential year.

As the pandemic upended life in 2020, it also dramatically reshaped our language, requiring a whole new vocabulary for talking about our new reality. It defined much of the work we did at Dictionary.com this year in order to meet the urgent need for information and explanation amid a fast-changing crisis.

In a period of just a few weeks in the spring, the pandemic introduced a host of new and newly prominent words that, normally, only public health professionals knew and used. Specialized lingo, spanning topics from epidemiology to social behavior, formed a shared—and ever-expanding—glossary for daily life. Besides more obvious items like COVID-19 and coronavirus, highlights include:


Supported by efforts of our editors to bring clarity and context to these terms and trends in articles and other content, our lexicographers updated our dictionary—twice this year—to document this extensive language change. We cannot overstate how rare it is for so many entries, so abruptly, to be added to the dictionary.

The resilience and resourcefulness people confronted the pandemic with also manifested itself in tremendous linguistic creativity. Throughout 2020, our team has been tracking a growing body of so-called coronacoinages that have given expression—and have offered some relief from tragedy, some connection in isolation—to the lived experience of a surreal year. In addition to shortened forms like rona and quar, we saw a slew of puns, blends, novel expressions, and other new words for a new normalCorona (from coronavirus) and Zoom (from a leading video communication platform) were especially productive in forming neologisms.


This outbreak of new language—matched by a surge of searches for these terms on site—is unlike anything we’ve ever seen at Dictionary.com. It takes an event on the order of a pandemic to generate such innovation. And on its own, this evolving vernacular serves as a striking timeline of life under COVID-19.

WATCH: Why Dictionary.com Chose This Word To Describe 2020

Choosing one word to describe 2020 has not been easy, it’s been a tumultuous year with many newsworthy events … and words. That’s why we recorded some of the reasons behind our choice word to sum up 2020. Do you agree with our Word of the Year?

Pandemic: the defining context for 2020

While pandemic rose to the top of the many words that drove both the search and lexicographical activity on Dictionary.com this year, 2020 barraged us, month after month, with unprecedented occurrences. The experience of such a welter of uncertainty and change—even as many of us were hunkered down at home—was jolting and disorienting.

President Donald Trump was acquitted of impeachment charges. After the killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter sparked a powerful reckoning with racism. Record wildfires ravaged the West Coast along with other extreme climate episodes. Americans voted, early and by mail like never before, in an impassioned presidential election.

This year was a lot to handle, and as our data shows, our users, in one form or another, tried to do so by looking up the terms surrounding these major events on our site in significant numbers.

Still, all of this took place in the context of—on account of, in spite of, in a now faraway-seeming world prior to—the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything from news headlines to advertisements to casual speech registered the totality of the pandemic by framing all of the events in terms of beforeduringamid, and since the pandemic. We applied pandemic as a modifier in novel ways: pandemic teachingpandemic fashionpandemic baking, or pandemic depression, for instance, characterize how these activities altered during life in the time of COVID-19.

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