It’s been incredibly tempting to think about what this year might have looked like without the big, generational disease unfolding in the foreground. How would the election have gone down? How many concerts would I have seen this summer? What would the Merriam-Webster word of the year have been under slightly better conditions? That last one hadn’t crossed my mind until today, when the word giant and Dictionary.com, each revealed the only possible choice — pandemic — to be their 2020 word of the year.
There wasn’t any other viable choice, once you rule out the more specific variations like COVID-19 or coronavirus. Merriam-Webster broke down how its search traffic surged this year, as the pandemic made its way stateside. Its first big jump came on February 3, when the first U.S. coronavirus patient was released from the hospital — drawing 1,621% more views than a year prior. Interest leaped into March, with searches for “pandemic” eclipsing 2019 numbers by 4,000. However, things really went haywire on the day everything palpably changed — Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson’s positive tests, the NBA shutting down, and WHO labeling the pandemic as such:
"On March 11th, the World Health Organization officially declared “that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,” and this is the day that pandemic saw the single largest spike in dictionary traffic in 2020, showing an increase of 115,806% over lookups on that day in 2019. What is most striking about this word is that it has remained high in our lookups ever since, staying near the top of our word list for the past ten months—even as searches for other related terms, such as coronavirus and COVID-19, have waned."
Although I’d have lobbied for gerontocracy or coup to follow close behind pandemic, the immediate runners-up were also ripped right from the headlines. Defund, mamba, kraken, and quarantine round out the top five. Antebellum — linked to the band formerly known as Lady Antebellum bungling their name change — and malarkey also made appearances this year. But the funniest entry comes for “irregardless,” the actual word that doesn’t really feel like a word. Merriam-Webster explains that it spiked when Jamie Lee Curtis tweeted that irregardless was just added to the dictionary, when it had actually been there since 1934.
Irregardless! It’s always fascinating to compare the word of the year to picks from the past decade. Scrolling through the list to see older choices like science, justice, -ism, and socialism/capitalism (with malarkey as a runner-up in 2012,) and it becomes clear that we'll always be churning through the same discourses and dumb culture wars — no matter which exceptional, once-in-a-generation calamity strikes.