The word of the year represents how 2020 will forever be defined

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  • The word of the year is "pandemic".
  • On 11 March 2020, online searches for "pandemic" spiked by 13 500%. 
  • Pandemic is described as "an epidemic occurring worldwide, affecting a large number of people".

Both Merriam-Webster and announced on Monday that "pandemic" was the word of the year. 

"Pandemic probably isn’t a big shock. Often the big news story has a technical word that’s associated with it and in this case, the word pandemic is not just technical but has become general. It’s probably the word by which we’ll refer to this period in the future," Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, told The Guardian

According to John Kelly, senior research editor at, online searches for the word "pandemic" spiked with more than 13 500% on 11 March, when the World Health Organisation declared an outbreak of the novel coronavirus a global health emergency.


The World Health Organisation (WHO) on its website provides the following description: "A pandemic is defined as 'an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people'. The classical definition includes nothing about population immunity, virology or disease severity.

"By this definition, pandemics can be said to occur annually in each of the temperate southern and northern hemispheres, given that seasonal epidemics cross international boundaries and affect a large number of people. However, seasonal epidemics are not considered pandemics."


What is the difference between an outbreak, epidemic, and a pandemic? Merriam-Webster defines it as follows: "An outbreak is 'a sudden rise in the incidence of a disease' and typically is confined to a localised area or a specific group of people.

"Should an outbreak become more severe, and less localised, it may be characterised as an epidemic. If it broadens still further, and affects a significant portion of the population, the disease may be characterised as a pandemic."

(Sources: The Guardian, Merriam-Webster, WHO)

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