Can You Guess the Dictionary’s 2020 Word of the Year?


Cambridge Dictionary made its pick for the 2020 Word of the Year based on search results during COVID-19. The choice won’t surprise you.

With the hint I just gave you, could you guess the Cambridge Dictionary’s 2020 Word of the Year? If you think about taking “social distancing” to the extreme, you can. Picture a shutdown. Picture staying home and away from others.

From that, you should be able to guess the word: quarantine.

Language Magazine reported the dictionary chose the word after it became the only word to rank in the top five for both search spikes and overall views. It found its highest spike, the site stated, during the week of March 18, when countries went on lockdown.

As for where the word came from, I told you about that back in 2013. In Latin, the word for 40 was quadraginta. The word quarantine came from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning “40 days.” During the time of the “black death,” ships coming into certain cities had to wait out a 40-day period of isolation to insure that none in the crew had the plague.

I also pointed out the Biblical significance of 40-day periods. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. The Christian celebration of Lent marks those 40 days of fasting.

“The close relationship of the words 40 and quarantine is important, because Lent could be considered a self-imposed quarantine from the things that distract us from God,” I wrote back then.

Dictionary finds ‘new meaning’ in 2020

The magazine reported a shift in the perceived meaning of the word. The change in meaning from a period where a person or animal should stay isolated edged toward “lockdown.” That’s not necessarily what a quarantine is, but given all the angst about lockdowns, it’s understandable.

But staying at home and practicing social distancing is not necessarily the same thing.

During a pandemic, we should certainly consider it to be a prudent practice. But when I work from home, I’m not under quarantine. When stores limit the number of customers they allow inside, they’re not imposing a quarantine. And when restaurants stop indoor dining, they’re not under quarantine, either.

I find it interesting that neither coronavirus nor COVID-19 appeared among the most seached-for in 2020. Cambridge Dictionary’s publishing manager speculates that could be a sign people “have been fairly confident about what the virus is.” Perhaps that’s a sign that people might be more willing now to finally take it seriously.

We can hope, anyway.

You can find the two runners-up in Language Magazine’s report here.

In the meantime, a vaccine and the end of COVID-19 — if it ever truly ends — can’t come quickly enough.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.