Pandemic face mask
Credit: Rattankun Thongbun/Getty Images

How has your 2020 been? There have surely been highs and lows for everyone, but one thing we've all shared is the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, now that it's time for popular dictionaries to choose their annual "word of the year," and Merriam-Webster both chose the same one: "Pandemic."

Both dictionary websites acknowledge that "pandemic" was certainly the most-searched word of the year on their platforms, especially on Feb. 3 (the day the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. was released from the hospital) and March 11 (when the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a "pandemic"). But those are mere indications of how the word "pandemic" came to define our lives this year.

"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," the post reads. "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..."

Merriam-Webster's post points out that the pandemic's ability to affect everyone on Earth is reflected right there in the etymology of the word.

"The Greek roots of this word tell a clear story: pan means 'all' or 'every,' and dēmos means 'people'; its literal meaning is 'of all the people,'" the post explains. "The related word epidemic comes from roots that mean 'on or upon the people.' The two words are used in ways that overlap, but in general usage a pandemic is an epidemic that has escalated to affect a large area and population."

But in addition to the many uses of "pandemic" itself, points out that the word spawned many new linguistic inventions this year as well. Medical lingo terms like "asymptomatic," "contact tracing," and (of course) "quarantine" became commonplace in 2020, while new words and phrases like "anti-masker," "the Before Times," and "Zoom fatigue" were also invented to describe the surreal experience of pandemic life.

"We cannot overstate how rare it is for so many entries, so abruptly, to be added to the dictionary," wrote. "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."

Here's hoping the word of 2021 will be slightly more pleasant to experience.

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