‘Quarantine’ has defeated ‘lockdown’ and ‘pandemic’ to be crowned Word of the Year 2020 after data showed it to be one of the most highly searched for on the Cambridge Dictionary.

Quarantine was the only word to rank in the top five for both search spikes (28,545) and overall views (more than 183,000 by early November), with the largest spike in searches seen the week of 18-24 March, when many countries around the world went into lockdown as a result of COVID-19.

The Cambridge Dictionary editors have also tracked how people are using quarantine, and have discovered a new meaning emerging: a general period of time in which people are not allowed to leave their homes or travel freely, so that they do not catch or spread a disease. Research shows the word is being used synonymously with lockdown, particularly in the United States, to refer to a situation in which people stay home to avoid catching the disease.

This new sense of quarantine has now been added to the Cambridge Dictionary, and marks a shift from the existing meanings that relate to containing a person or animal suspected of being contagious: a specific period of time in which a person or animal that has a disease, or may have one, must stay or be kept away from others in order to prevent the spread of the disease.

Wendalyn Nichols, Cambridge Dictionary Publishing Manager, said:

“The words that people search for reveal not just what is happening in the world, but what matters most to them in relation to those events. Neither coronavirus nor COVID-19 appeared among the words that Cambridge Dictionary users searched for most this year. We believe this indicates that people have been fairly confident about what the virus is.

“Instead, users have been searching for words related to the social and economic impacts of the pandemic, as evidenced not just by quarantine but by the two runners-up on the shortlist for Word of the Year: lockdown, and pandemic itself.”


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