Three Words to Describe COVID-19

    28 November 2020

    In today's Words and Their Stories, we will talk about words from the health crisis that affects all of us this year.

    Wendalyn Nichols is with Cambridge Dictionary. She said, "the words that people search for reveal not just what is happening in the world, but what matters most to them in relation to those events."

    The events of this year have sent people to search for words like "coronavirus" and "COVID-19." It also brought words that we rarely used in the recent past, such as "quarantine," "lockdown," and "pandemic."

    So what did Cambridge Dictionary choose as the 2020 word of the year? The answer is "quarantine."


    Cambridge said searches for the word increased in March when many countries went into lockdown to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

    The word has also taken on a new meaning and Cambridge has since added to its definition. It now says quarantine is "a general period of time in which people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely, so that they do not catch or spread a disease."

    An almost empty street is seen at Times Square in New York City. The city was under a lockdown order on March 16, 2020.
    An almost empty street is seen at Times Square in New York City. The city was under a lockdown order on March 16, 2020.


    Collins Dictionary, another British publisher, chose "lockdown" for its word of the year. It said the word represents a uniting experience for people across the world.

    The publisher noted that "lockdown" was originally a word connected to prison life. When prisoners riot or cause other trouble, guards will lock them inside their cells to help return order to the prison.

    In 2020, Collins said under lockdown, "normal public life is suspended" and "we see few people, and fewer places."

    The meaning of the word has changed in people's mind: "Lockdown is now a public health measure."


    On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus crisis a "pandemic." At a news conference that day, the World Health Organization's director-general said, "Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly."

    The Merriam-Webster Learners' Dictionary says "pandemic" is an event in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world.

    Both Oxford and Collins said "pandemic" received consideration as their word of the year. The Oxford Dictionary, however, did not select "pandemic" or any single word as its "word of the year."

    An Unprecedented Year

    Oxford Dictionary officials said 2020 is not a year that could be described in a single word. So it decided to look at words as they changed throughout the year in a "Words of an Unprecedented Year" report.

    It was "bushfire" in January when more than 200 fires were burning across Australia.

    In February, everyone was talking about the "impeachment" of U.S. President Donald Trump.

    The month of March brought "coronavirus" followed by "COVID-19." Then came "lockdown, social distancing, reopening, hand sanitizer, coverings, and super-spreader."

    And June was the month for "Black Lives Matter," after American police killed Black citizen George Floyd in late May.

    "Mail-in" saw increased usage in August as Americans looked for ways to vote safely during the pandemic.

    What about Merriam Webster?

    In 2019, Merriam-Webster chose "they" as its word of the year. The word "they" has no gender and can be used in place of "he" or "she."

    The American dictionary publisher has yet to choose its word of the year for 2020.

    However, the online betting website Sportsbook Review says the word "COVID-19" is the heavy favorite to become Webster's word of the year.

    And that's Words and Their Stories. I'm Gregory Stachel.

    Gregory Stachel wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    reveal v. to make (something) known

    allow v. to permit

    sanitizer n. a chemical substance designed to kill germs

    super-spreader adj. of an event. a gathering of people that results in many infections (of a person: someone who infects a higher-than normal number of others with a disease)