What Will Win Word of the Year 2020?

Merriam-Webster Word of the Year 2020

Merriam-Webster Word of the Year 2020
Actor/actress of the year. Artist of the year. Song of the year. We are all familiar with pop culture’s multitude of “blank of the year” awards. We celebrate art in many forms, including music, film, and dance. We often forget the art of the English language.

Lucky for us, Merriam-Webster celebrates this each year with its selection of “Word of the Year.”

Here some of this year’s contenders, along with their odds courtesy of BetOnline.

Merriam-Webster Word of the Year 2020 Winner Betting odds
COVID-19 -155
Coronavirus +200
Social distancing +200
Self-quarantine +400
Pandemic +500
Work from home +700
Isolation +900
Zoom +900
Community +1600
Immunocompromised +1600

There is an obvious theme to this year’s contenders. Merriam-Webster (MW) selects their word of the year based on statistics and data. Words are selected based on the number of times they are searched on MW’s site as well as how often they appear in society (think social media, everyday conversations, and the news).

Below are my thoughts on some of the likely winners, along with my ultimate prediction.

COVID-19 vs. Coronavirus

COVID-19 is Coronavirus. With the current climate of the global outbreak, it is only natural that these two words are top contenders.

It is easy to assume one of these word variations will win by a landslide. After looking into other historical pandemics, I have different thoughts. In 2009, The World Health Organization (WHO) declared H1N1 a global pandemic. While the two pandemics vary greatly in impact (death count and hospitalizations), the 2009 and 2010 word of the year had little to do with H1N1. In fact, the top 10 list for both years only had two words potentially related to H1N1. Political and economic climates had more influence on the winners for both years. Admonish landed the top pick in 2009, made famous by Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s healthcare speech. The word admonish was utilized to describe the ordeal. Austerity took home first place honors in 2010 due to the global economic crisis in Europe.

You are probably thinking, “Well, H1N1 wasn’t as bad as COVID-19 today.” You would be right. While the 2009/2010 outbreak met requirements to be considered a pandemic, the outcomes were much less daunting than what we have already seen with COVID-19. 2009’s H1N1 virus was a mutated version of the original H1N1. Populations that are generally considered most at risk had developed some form of immunity over the years. Thus, people were able to fight the virus much more successfully.

H1N1 made its first appearance in 1918. In 1918, H1N1 was dubbed the Spanish flu, although there is not any evidence the virus originated in Spain. Back then, there was not a vaccine for the virus, and society had yet to form immunity to it. Much like today, interventions like isolation, quarantine, social distancing, and good hygiene were promoted as non-pharmaceutical defense mechanisms. The death toll was estimated to be at least 500 million worldwide, with 675,000 in the US alone. Much like today, the Spanish flu left a very powerful mark on society.

MW only began selecting words of the year in 2003. However, MW did publish a retrospect of words for the year 1918. While the Spanish flu most certainly left a mark on global history as one of the deadliest pandemics, MW focused its 1918 retrospect on American culture. Words and phrases like dollar-a-year, dirty pool, and Mickey Finn emerged. Even in 1918, Americans utilized sports and fitness to navigate mental health in their new normal. MW paid tribute to this mindset by drawing attention to phrases coined specific to sports and fitness. The first documented use of college try is attributed to the New York Giants’ manager, John McGraw. The daily dozen referred to the twelve exercises designed for WW1 naval recruits. The only word potentially tied to the Spanish flu in this retrospect is cabin fever.

History has shown that while pandemics change the world, MW chooses their word of the year not only on stats but also the political, economic, and social impact. MW will more than likely select a word that is related to how we live as a result of COVID-19.

Social Distancing

Per MW, the first known use of social distancing dates back to 2003. That is right, my friends. This phrase was coined during the SARS pandemic to represent the need to maintain at least six feet of distance from one another. People say history repeats itself. Here we are in 2020 using social distancing to describe safety precautions in this pandemic. In case you’re curious, social distancing was not word of the year in 2003. Democracy was selected. However, the word of the year selection process was different back then. Not only did MW take into consideration the number of hits on its website, but MW also allowed everyday people like you and me to submit and vote on words we felt should be representative of the year. In 2006, the process changed, removing the online polling option. Today, it is strictly data-driven coupled with how the word or phrase at hand has permeated our language.

Something else to consider. The turn of social media’s popularity gained momentum much later than 2003. Instagram was not introduced until 2010. Ten years later, our IG feeds are full of “look at how I am social distancing.” Even if you are not highlighting how you personally social distance, maybe brands and businesses you follow are advertising how they plan to maintain proper social distancing measures as the country begins to reopen.

The phrase social distancing is not only popularly promoted, but it is also drumming up controversy. Different interest groups would like to change the phrase social distancing to physical distancing. The movement wants to more accurately portray that people can still be social without being physically close. They feel the distinction will drive compliance with the requirement to physically be apart while protecting people’s mental health regarding their ability to socialize. No matter what side of the line you teeter on here (more accuracy vs. accurate enough), the phrase social distancing is getting an uptick in attention.


Believe it or not, our little friend pandemic made it into the top 10 word of the year list back in 2005 with the bird flu. If you are anything like me, when the WHO announced COVID-19 was now a pandemic, you had a mild heart attack. Then you questioned, “What exactly does pandemic mean?” Well, friends, by now, you have more than likely realized that pandemic refers to an epidemic that has spread over multiple countries or continents. Intermountain Healthcare says an epidemic is “a disease that affects a large number of people within a community, population, or region.”  Intermountain calls a pandemic an epidemic with a passport.

Why did pandemic only place 7th out of 10 on the list? Well, let’s just say 2005 was a very eventful year. With the emergence of major natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, words like refugee were researched more frequently as the country debated what to do with Katrina victims. In addition, Pope John Paul II passed. As the world dealt with life-altering events, it was only natural the word integrity edged out all the other contenders.

My guess is that pandemic will make the top 10 list, but it won’t lap the other words enough to win first place. Going back to my mild heart attack, I looked up pandemic to understand how it is different than an epidemic. I bet there is a correlation between how many times pandemic and epidemic were researched. It’s doubtful there is enough ongoing research of the word to push other words out of the running.

Work From Home

As COVID-19 spread, nonessential businesses sent their workers home. Offices closed to minimize the spread. More people began working from home. Advancements in technology have allowed more companies to offer remote positions. The US Census estimates about 5.2% of the US worked from home in 2017, roughly 8 million people. Since COVID-19, Gallup reports about 66% of Americans work from home. Even recruiting websites like ZipRecruiter report more job postings (+10%) with the flexibility to work from home.

As we discussed earlier, MW likes to focus on words that describe how we were impacted during a given year. Most Americans did not work from home pre-COVID. We now have an influx of roughly 61% more Americans working from the safety of their homes. With the work from home numbers skyrocketing, the research to balance work and life is on the rise as well. When I Googled “how to work from home effectively 2020,” 1,620,000,000 articles were returned. Commuters are trying to adapt to this new work style. The first ten pages of the search results are articles written in mid- to late-March, around the time the country began to hunker down. Search results indicate that work from home is a strong contender for the top 10.


Zoom has been around since 2011. According to the company’s website, “Zoom is the leader in modern enterprise video communications, with an easy, reliable cloud platform for video and audio conferencing, collaboration, chat, and webinars across mobile devices, desktops, telephones, and room systems.” Before COVID-19, I had heard of Zoom, but I never paid much attention to it until now.

In December 2019, the company reported 10 million users. The figure was up to 200 million users by March 2020. The surge in users could very well be from the increase in Americans working from home. Companies hope to use technologies like Zoom to increase human interaction during the stay at home/ work from home orders.

Fitness studios and gyms turned to Zoom to reach their clientele. Motivational speakers turned to Zoom to hold workshops. Friends and families leaned on the platform to host socially distant activities like game night or virtual happy hours. No matter the purpose, Americans were buying into the idea of using Zoom to stay connected.

Zoom for the Win

I know. You think I am crazy for picking Zoom. Hear me out. First, this is definitely a black horse of a pick. We have discussed MW’s love for words depicting human emotion given the major events of the year. MW also loves picking words that have been transformed. Take the 2019 MW word of the year, they. Yes, you read that correctly. The word of the year last year was they.

They has been around since 1375 according The Oxford English Dictionary. It is not a new word. However, the use of they has changed over time. In fact, they has been part of many cultural conversations in 2019.

“The singular ‘they’ is a pronoun used to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a word that itself was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary in September of this year.”- Time Magazine

MW reported an increase of 313% in lookups of they in 2019. MW representatives believe people were encountering the use of the word in a new context. Thus, users were turning to the dictionary to understand the new use of the word they.

This is exactly why I believe Zoom will be the next word of the year. Not only is Zoom a proper noun, but it is has morphed into a verb specific to the company that brought the platform to life.

We have moved from saying “Let’s get on Zoom” to variations like “Let’s zoom.” It is like the use of the proper noun Google and variations of the verb google. With much of the world being introduced to Zoom during this pandemic, I would bet people of all ages are looking into what it means to Zoom. Remember, spikes in stats matter.

Zoom is currently listed on MW.com as the verb defined as “to go speedily.” Even though the newest use of Zoom has not been included in MW, it is still a contender at large. Look at they. They was not added until September 2019, yet the word still cruised into first place.

Check out the top entertainment betting sites to bet on Merriam-Webster Word of the Year and other fun markets.

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