As we enter a new year it is a good time to look back at the year we have just left. There is nothing new to say about how unusual 2020 was but it is interesting to look at the way the events affected our vocabulary. The words we used in 2020  give an indication of the new challenges we faced. I surveyed what the world’s main dictionaries have said about the word of the year 2020. This post looks at the words associated with the great pandemic.


The 2020 coronavirus pandemic was caused by a new coronavirus named COVID-19 in February 2020. The name represents CO(RONA)VI(RUS) + D(ISEASE) + (20)19 (referring to the year it was first reported).

Merriam Webster added it to their dictionary in a special release of new words in March. This gave COVID-19 the distinction of being the fastest term to go from being coined to being included in a Merriam-Webster dictionary (the main US dictionary)—the process having taken 34 days.

Because COVID-19 has so deeply affected every aspect of life in 2020 it dominated our vocabulary. It has been known as the coronavirus, COVID-19 and, for a while, the WUHAN VIRUS, although that had some PANDA BASHING implications (the Macquarie Dictionary defines panda bashing as colloquial and derogatory criticism of Chinese government policies or actions by  another country, especially a western country).

Macquarie Dictionary also records BOOMER REMOVER because COVID-19 is more fatal to older people. US President, Trump, controversially called it KUNG FLU and CHINESE FLU in June which were both seen as racist by Asian-Americans (for whom the phrase was a familiar playground insult) and PANDA BASHING by everyone else.


Merriam Webster nominated PANDEMIC as their word of the year for 2020. This was based on a statistical analysis of words that were looked up in high numbers on their online dictionary (see our blogpost on the origin of the pandemic).

On 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that COVID-19 could be characterized as a pandemic. That day saw the single largest spike in pandemic lookups for 2020 in the Merriam Webster dictionary, an increase of more than a thousand times from the same date in 2019. Pandemic remained high in their lookups all year.

Similarly, OED saw PANDEMIC usage increase by more than 570 times this year.


Merriam Webster reported that CORONAVIRUS was largely ignored at the beginning of the year but it changed on 20 January, with the announcement of the first U.S. case of COVID-19. The largest spike in lookups came on 19 March. CORONAVIRUS was looked up 1625 times more in 2020 year than in 2019.

In typical Australian fashion the coronavirus period has been abbreviated to the RONA. This was one of Macquarie Dictionary’s two Words of the Year for 2020.

The coronavirus was named in 1968 when virologists observed under a microscope that the virus resembled a solar corona. A corona is the ring of light visible during an eclipse (corona is the Latin word for crown). SARS and MERS are also coronaviruses (see our coronavirus blogpost).


Merriam Webster reports that there was interest in QUARANTINE before the stay-at-home orders were brought in in the U.S., with  news reports of outbreaks on cruise ships in early February triggering lookups (see our quarantine blogpost).

Macquarie Dictionary included QUARANTINI for a mixed alcoholic drink made at home during lockdown, quarantine or enforced social isolation.


BUBBLE is another COVID word. It is used to refer to a group of countries, areas or people that have formed a closed system to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.


The Macquarie Dictionary’s People’s Choice Word of the Year for 2020 was KAREN. Karen is a term used predominately to refer to middle class white woman of generation X who is regarded as having an entitled condescending and often racist attitude. The meme is contentious for being sexist but its popularity was kicked along by viral social media videos. Karen is often associated with the SPEAK TO THE MANAGER haircut, short in the back and longer in the front. The hairstyle is often mocked as being typical of middle-aged women who complain to managers at retail stores and restaurants.

Macquarie Dictionary also included COVIDIOT as a person who refuses to follow health advice aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19, by not social distancing (keeping a specified distance from people to avoid disease transmission), taking part in large gatherings, as well as buying large amounts of perceived staples, especially toilet paper. They also report MASKHOLES as people who refuse to wear masks.

SUPERSPREADER is a word dating back to the 70s, but it spiked in at the OED October when coronavirus cases spread in the White House.


The Macquarie Dictionary describes COVID-NORMAL as a way of living in which a community takes precautions against transmission of COVID-19 prior to the availability of an effective vaccine as a natural part of day-to-day life.

In Germany the Bundesliga continued to play football matches but due to COVID-19, they were played without crowds and were thus known as GEISTERSPIELE, literally ghost games.

The Germans also had AHA, an acronym that represents their government’s official advice regarding daily behaviour during the pandemic: Abstand refers to keeping distance, followed by Hygiene and finally Alltagsmaske, referring to the wearing of a face mask.


The Collins Dictionary chose LOCKDOWN for its word of the year earlier this month. Lexicographers registered more than 250,000 usages of lockdown during 2020, up from just 4,000 last year. According to the dictionary, lockdown is defined as “the imposition of stringent restrictions on travel, social interaction, and access to public spaces”.

CONFINEMENT and its variants are the French equivalent of lockdown. The different stages of the pandemic in France, began with confinement, then DÉCONFINEMENT, lifting lockdown, before RECONFINEMENT—going back into lockdown.

The French were also put under COUVRE-FEU, which we would recognise as CURFEW, being required to stay indoors between certain hours. It comes originally from the French couvre-feu, literally meaning cover the fire, an expression for the from the Middle Ages to prevent villages burning down from unattended fireplaces. Imposing curfew had not been imposed in France since the Nazi occupation of World War II.


The Australian National Dictionary (based at the Australian National University and linked with the Oxford Dictionary) said the pandemic had inspired most of the new words used in the country this year. They chose ISO as their word of the year because of its particularly Australian take on the global outbreak.

Iso has been used in combination with other words such as ISO-BAKING, ISO-KILOS from ISO-BAKING and the resulting ISO-WAISTLINE. There were ISO-BUBBLES and ISO-HAIRCUTS and ISO-FASHION.


HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE is a colourless crystalline solid, C18H26ClN3O, used in the treatment of malaria and other diseases. In March, US President Trump announced the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) would fast-track approval of unproven coronavirus treatments, including chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19. Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, soon afterwards contradicted Trump saying that hydroxychloroquine is not an effective coronavirus treatment.

Trump’s erroneous announcement resulted in a man in Arizona dying after he and his wife drank a small amount of a chloroquine phosphate product used to treat parasites in fish in the hope of treating themselves against a coronavirus infection.

This is the first of our series of word of the year 2020 posts.