When a big news story happens, Peter Sokolowski can usually tell. One of his duties as editor at large for Meriam-Webster is to keep an eye on traffic to their online dictionary. He learned years ago that when a story is big enough, certain words will capture the attention of thousands upon thousands simultaneously, and lookups of those words in their dictionary will spike dramatically.
“Normally you see a few of the words from the headlines that rise to the top,” said Sokolowski.
But on March 13, 2020 — Friday the 13th, of course — Sokolowski saw something he had never seen before. A single-story dominated the collective consciousness. The burgeoning COVID-19 crisis was driving unprecedented traffic to their online dictionary — and would, eventually, drive the creation of whole new words at blazing speed.
Sokolowski said the top 30 to 40 words looked up that Friday were all related to the pandemic.
“We have never seen a news event that was every single look up like this,” Sokolowski said. “[Not] Michael Jackson's death, 9/11, the Newtown shootings, the Boston Marathon bombings, Robin Williams’ suicide, Trump's election victory.”
A Remarkable Thing
The list of top lookups from March 13, 2020 reads, today, like a snapshot of a country suddenly coming to terms with the magnitude of an unprecedented, and largely unknown, new challenge.
“It was this story and this story only, but different facets of it, different angles on it," Sokolowski said. “The words [looked up] encapsulate a few different categories.”
Among the words and terms that saw outsized interest were medical ones — like "pandemic," "coronavirus" and "corona." There were terms related to the response by public officials — including "quarantine," "draconian," "lockdown" and "martial law." And there were words of a more personal nature, suggesting people grappling with an unprecedented situation — including "apoplectic," "calamity" and "Kafkaesque."
But of all the words looked up that day, Sokolowski finds particular poignancy in a familiar one that, at first blush, seems like a bit of a head scratcher: The word "cancel."
As in, “this weekend’s concert is canceled,” or “all programs are canceled until further notice.”
"The dictionary serves this higher plane of intellectual curiosity, but it also sometimes serves the very basic spelling function that we all use day in and day out,” Sokolowski said.
Sokolowski notes that the word "canceled" has one "l" in American English but two in British English, a quirk that is a not infrequent source of confusion. And that "cancel" saw such a surge of interest that day is a reminder of just how much of what was once everyday life came to a grinding halt last March.
“You're making a sign for your window, you're making an announcement and you say, ‘Oh, is that one'l' or two? You look it up in the dictionary, and that causes the word to spike,” he said. “That is a remarkable thing. And, I think, a very poignant thing.”
Language Usually Doesn't Move This Quickly
The World Health Organization coined the term COVID-19, a shortening of COronaVIrus Disease 2019, in February of 2020.
“It suddenly became a term that was used everywhere by journalists, by all the medical professionals and by everyone who's paying attention to this story,” Sokolowski said.
But the term — like the virus itself — was brand new and, therefore, not in the dictionary. That quickly became a problem.
“In our data we saw many people looking this term up in the dictionary and getting nothing in response, because the word was not yet entered,” Sokolwski said.
And so the team at Meriam-Webster did something they have never done before, responding at a pace previously unheard of in the fastidious, slow-moving world of dictionaries.
“We decided for the first time to have an emergency release, to release a couple of dozen entries because the public was seeking information on these words," Sokolwski said.
"COVID-19" was, of course, among the new entries. It went from being coined to being added to the dictionary in just 34 days. No word in the history of the English language had done that faster.
Sokolowski said that within five minutes of being added in March, "COVID-19" was the single most looked up word in their online dictionary. Other new terms also saw immediate spikes in interest, including "super-spreader" and "self-quarantine."
It wasn’t just that new words emerged, according to Sokolwski. Old words and terms also quickly took on new meanings and needed similarly speedy updates.
“Language usually doesn't move this quickly,” he explained. “We see words evolve very quickly, and their meanings have changed almost at the snap of a finger.”
The word "lockdown," for example, had previously been associated with security and crime.
“And now we have added a new sense to the dictionary that has to do with a temporary condition imposed by governmental authorities, as during the outbreak of an epidemic disease, in which people are required to stay in their homes,” Sokolwski said.
"Bubble," in a metaphorical sense, had previously been used to describe an insular set of ideas, such as a political bubble or ideological bubble.
“But now we have this new sense where a bubble refers to, for health purposes, retaining a small group or a family group together who refrain from contact with others,” Sokolowski said.
A Natural Experiment
How language changes over time is a major focus of researchers at Michigan State University’s Sociolinguistics lab. And when the pandemic hit, linguist Betsy Sneller said that she and her colleagues saw a unique opportunity.
"This is a natural experiment, and we have to start collecting this data,” Sneller said of her thinking in the early months of 2020.
And so the Michigan COVID Diaries project was born.
Since March, dozens of participants have been recording regular audio diaries.
They tell stories of their experiences and answer a series of questions posed weekly as prompts from Sneller and her team. The results are all cataloged and will be a veritable treasure trove of raw linguistic data that will be able to be analyzed for years to come.
As for Sneller, she wants to answer a simple question that could have big implications: “Does social distancing as a result of the pandemic affect how people talk?”
One area where Sneller has already seen a clear, immediate impact is pandemic-related vocabulary.
At the outset of the project, Sneller said she regularly heard more than a dozen terms being used by participants to describe the pandemic — everything from "the lockdown" to "social distancing," "the 'rona'" to "the pandemic" and the once-popular euphemism "the current situation."
Similarly, when the school year began in the fall of 2020 with many children attending remotely, a diversity of terms began popping up regularly — including "quarenteam," "family bubble," "learning pod" and "pod."
But within a matter of months, Sneller said the variation in those terms began to narrow and, as she put it, “clear winners” emerged.
"The pandemic" beat out the others as the descriptor of the era we are now experiencing. As for a group who remains together even amidst social distancing? It deinfitiely a "pod."
That certain terms emerged as clearly more popular does not surprise Sneller. That it happened so quickly during a time of social distancing, however, is notable. She posits that one factor could be the way in which people have stayed connected while remaining socially apart.
“We know that the internet, especially social media platforms like Twitter, where you are interacting with people who you don't know, have this effect of accelerating vocabulary changes,” she explained.
Whether these “winning terms” are specific to the Michigan region or have also been more universally accepted is still unknown.
Other question remain, too. While pandemic-related vocabulary has clearly converged, what about non-pandemic-related vocabulary? How has social distancing impacted things like accents, inflection and pronunciation?
“Our project is going to continue,” Sneller said. “I think it will be really interesting in the year after the pandemic [ends] to see.”
'Still In The Middle Of It'
There are still plenty of open question for the folks at Meriam-Webster as well. For every new word and definition they’ve added to their dictionary, there are scores of other trending terms that they have yet to — but will continue monitoring. Which of these will have staying power in the language is anyone’s guess.
Will people five years from now still say they are “zooming” when they conduct a video meeting online? Will slang terms like "doomscrolling" and "covidiot" make their way into wider use or be little-known relics from a brief moment in time? Will "COVID-19," in all-caps, be the preferred styling? Or will it be overtaken by "Covid-19," in lowercase, a styling many news organizations have started using?
Sokolowski points out that in 2009, in response to the market collapse the previous year — and the subsequent global financial crisis that would become known as the Great Recession — Meriam-Webster named "bailout" as their word of the year.
"However, when we talk now about that period, we don't call it 'the bailout,'" he said. "This period, we will probably call the pandemic, I'm guessing, but it's still a guess. We're still in the middle of it."