One candidate for Word of the Year in December 2020 was odd, it was the year itself  — 2020. The idea was well-meant as it crystalizes that strange and sad year. Those four Arabic numbers arrayed together summed up the long period of staying at home and wearing masks in public. But the American Dialect Society chose another familiar term from last year — “pandemic.”

I, too, would choose “pandemic”. Picking “2020” is surreal and quite unusual. Imagine someone in an archives reading that the ADS Word of the Year 2020 was — the year itself.  It would be seen as unoriginal and lazy. This is because 2020 had a strong bench of words that outdo “2020.” This week and next, I write below about words featured on the list of top lookups on Merriam-Webster.

According to Merriam-Webster officials, “pandemic” had a big spike on Feb. 3, 2020. One factor was that the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. was released from a Seattle hospital that day. “Pandemic” was looked up 1,621% more on that day than it had in the entire year prior, 2019. The date of the first positive case — Jan. 20 — was a sign the word would skyrocket. It sure did!

A “Pandemic” has Greek roots in that pan means “all” or “every” and demos means “people.” A short description of a pandemic is “an epidemic that has escalated to affect a large area and population.” For 2020, the American Dialect Society chose “Covid” as top word. Interestingly, to spell it in all capital letters or with just an initial capital letter, are both acceptable. A well-known journalist with a language column presided over the 2020 voting session that chose “Covid.”

“The selection recognizes how ubiquitous the term has become, from the time that the name for the disease caused a novel coronavirus was dubbed COVID-19 by the World Health Organization back in February,” noted Ben Zimmer, language maven for the Wall Street Journal. “That was quickly clipped to Covid, which then appeared in phrases like Covid crisis, Covid relief, and Covid vaccine.”

Another term that has resulted in plenty of lookups is “defund.” This emanated after a batch of killings of blacks, by police. Defund was looked up 6,059% more times in 2020 than in 2019. It basically means “to withdraw funding from.” The idea is to reallocate some funds for programs seeking social justice and providing training classes in diversity, etc. for law enforcement.

 Be careful with the term “defund.” Several cities where highly publicized incidents involving police happened, such as Minneapolis and Seattle, did cut budgets significantly. But that was right after the murders of sometimes unarmed blacks. As tensions cool, most will realize crippling the police would be like firing all firefighters.

Activists and media, both right and left, use “defund” in ways that are not constructive. When liberal politicians say “defund” they don’t mean 100%, especially since they live in areas that will be affected by any cuts. When conservative officeholders try to scare people into thinking the only police left will be a few leftovers at the station, or some such, they discredit themselves.

An amazing feat: How about a word that had a one-day increase in searches by 128,000%? That’s what occurred on July 23, when Seattle’s National Hockey League franchise chose “Kraken” as its name. For example, many university and high schools have the name “Tigers” because the animal can be aggressive when facing an enemy.

This is not a replacement name, such as when the Cleveland Indians decided to switch to the Cleveland Guardians, effective next season. The Seattle hockey team is brand-new, thus did not have to discard a name but began with its first one. “Kraken” sounds like something people in Seattle would find exhilarating.

Naming them “Krakens” is an inspired choice. Sports teams try to get a strong name that encourages fans to support them. A kraken is good because it is a mythical Scandinavian sea monster, although not a new word. Krakens are found in Marvel comics and there was an unforgettable one in “Clash of the Titans.”

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice,” said T.S. Eliot, 20th century poet and essayist. Next week, in Part 2, we review Zoom-related words, others of political correctness and diversity  and a few older words slowly slipping away. See you then!

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 11 years. .