Word Play – Pandemic

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, February 19th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Myrna Brown.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Choosing the right word is vital for a journalist. It’s pretty important for everyone else, too. Our resident wordsmith, George Grant, did a little research on the most-used words of 2020. He found some interesting, if not entirely surprising, themes. Here’s this month’s Word Play.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: Peter Marshall once said, “The use of the right word, the exact word, is the difference between a pencil with a sharp point and a thick crayon.” So, if you had to choose the right word, the exact word to describe the last year, what would it be? How would you summarize what we experienced in 2020?

Every year the editors of Merriam-Webster online take up the task of identifying the “Word of the Year.” Based upon a statistical analysis of queries and searches, the dictionary wordsmiths attempt to index key cultural concerns and societal trends. And this past year there were concerns and trends aplenty!

The polarized political climate and the hotly contested presidential campaign gave new prominence to several words. During one of the debates, Joe Biden declared, “Give me a break—that’s a bunch of malarkey.” A common feature of his folksy rhetorical style, Biden often uses words like “malarkey.” But it sent thousands of would-be voters to the dictionary to look it up. They discovered it is an Irish-American slang term meaning “nonsense,” “bunk,” or “hogwash.”

Then there was the sudden spike of interest in schadenfreude, a borrowed word from the German. It is compounded from shaden, meaning “calamity” or “adversity,” and freude meaning “gladness” or “joy.” It is one of those perfect spelling bee words that means “to find malicious delight in the misfortunes of others.” Whether it was because of the frequent malapropisms of the candidates or fluctuations in the polls, schadenfreude seemed to abound.

When the new NHL franchise in Seattle announced that it had chosen kraken as its team name and mascot, searches for the word skyrocketed 128,000 percent in a single day. It seems that a kraken is a mythic Norse sea monster. Then, during the post-election controversy over accusations of ballot irregularities, “Release the kraken” became a phrase that took on a life all its own.

But of course, the words most frequently looked up last year had to do with COVID-19. Rarely have words moved from professional medical jargon to the everyday vocabulary of ordinary Americans as quickly as have coronavirus, asymptomatic, quarantine, epidemiology, herd-immunity, pathogenicity, and immunocompromised.

When the World Health Organization officially declared that COVID-19 was a global pandemic, that word, pandemic, earned the single largest spike in dictionary traffic, with an increase of nearly 116,000 percent. The Greek root pan means “all” or “every.” And demos means “people.” Taken together the word literally means “among all people” or “of everyone everywhere.” It is used to describe an epidemic that has spread uncontrollably. In the end, Merriam-Webster’s editors realized that this was the right word, the exact word, to describe the last year. 2020’s “Word of the Year” is pandemic.

Chris Lynch has quipped that, “The right word at the right time helps you make sense of the world. It helps, but sometimes not a lot.” So, here’s to hoping 2021’s word is a bit more normal. As in “back to normal.”

I’m George Grant.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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