There’s been no shortage of criticism in recent week of everyone from business leaders to public officials to individual citizens, for not moving fast enough to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. But one industry whose stock-in-trade is to work slowly is moving with unprecedented speed: The dictionary.

Not every new word that makes is way into our day-to-day conversations makes it into the dictionary — even online, where space is essentially unlimited. In fact, it’s actually pretty hard for a new word to get the nod.

"We have a kind of reflex to wait," said Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Springfield-based Merriam Webster. "[We want] to make sure that the word has staying power; that it’s going to be around for a long time."

Typically, he said, when a new word emerges, researchers watch it — fastidiously citing its usage over time in publications. Phonetics experts study its pronunciation. Etymologists examine its history. Definitions are drafted, edited and refined. It’s a careful, deliberative, intentionally slow process.

"Normally, it’s more like a conveyor belt that takes, on average, a number of years for a word to go from being noticed to being added to the dictionary," said Sokolowski.

Even in our fast-moving, hyper-connected world, where technology creates new toys — and new terms — at a breakneck pace, that process has held true.

"The word blog, for example, B-L-O-G. I believe it took four years from its coinage to its entry into the dictionary," said Sokolowski.

The word AIDS, which first appeared in 1982, was included in their dictionary two years later in 1984. Sokolowski said that’s the fastest a word had ever been added.

Until now.

A few weeks back, online look-ups began spiking for a word that was only coined a few months ago and not in their dictionary: COVID-19.

"The public were asking the dictionary a question and we weren’t able to answer it," said Sokolowski. "And so we did something that, in fact, we’ve never done before."

They moved fast.

"Our science writers wrote new definitions for 'COVID-19,' for 'Coronavirus Disease 2019.'"

And they added them immediately to their online dictionary. Other words and terms that were already in the lexicon, but had yet to meet the usual criteria for inclusion in the dictionary have been fast-tracked, too. They include “social distancing,” “self-quarantine,” “super-spreader” and “community spread.”

"'Community spread' is a term that we date back to 1945 for its first use," explained Sokolowski. "But we just added it to the dictionary last week."

They also revisited related words already in the dictionary.

"We added elements to the definition of 'coronavirus,'" said Sokolowski. "And for older entries like 'SARS' and 'MERS,' which are different forms of the disease."

And it’s not just new words that people are looking up. Sokolowski said big news stories reliably drive traffic to their online dictionary. It happens each year during the Oscars and the Super Bowl. It happened when Princess Diana died, on 9/11 and during President Trump’s impeachment hearings. But even the biggest stories usually generate outsized interest in just a handful of words or terms.

"What we’ve never seen is essentially all of the top look-ups in the dictionary relating to one story," said Sokolowski. " And that’s really what’s happening. The top fifty or so words all have some connection to this."

Words at the heart of the crisis like "coronavirus," "virus" and "novel" have been looked up in huge numbers for weeks now. So, too, have more technical ones like "epidemic," "pandemic," "quarantine," "lockdown" and "triage."

Sokolowski said spikes in look-ups for words like "panic," "hoard" and "draconian" indicate people are looking to the dictionary for nuance of meaning in some words.

But they’re also looking to the dictionary for nuance of spelling. With a surge of event cancellations has come a surge in look-ups for the word "cancel."

"In American English, we usually use only one 'L' when we make inflections of the verb 'to cancel,'" said Sokolowski. "So 'canceled' or 'canceling' are typically spelled with one 'L' whereas in British English normally there are two 'L's.'”

Sokolowski said that while the speed of this story — and Merriam-Webster’s response — may be unprecedented, the mission remains the same as it’s been since Noah Webster published his first dictionary back in 1806.

"People are looking to the dictionary for facts," he said. "The facts of the language around this crisis. And I’m glad to say that the dictionary’s here for that reason and always was — and I hope it always will be."