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'Unprecedented' named People's Choice 2020 Word of the Year by Dictionary.com

ABC News logo ABC News 12/16/2020
a man wearing sunglasses: A man walks by the area where people get vaccine at University Hospital's COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, N.J. Dec. 15, 2020. © Eduardo Munoz/Reuters A man walks by the area where people get vaccine at University Hospital's COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, N.J. Dec. 15, 2020.

After Dictionary.com named "pandemic" its Word of the Year, users of the online dictionary elected "unprecedented" as the People's Choice 2020 Word of the Year.

"Unprecedented" beat out "pandemic" by a small margin, according to John Kelly, senior research editor at Dictionary.com, and is defined by the site as "without previous instance; never before known or experienced; unexampled or unparalleled." Other user submissions included "dumpster fire," "apocalyptic" and "pandemonium."

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"What's particularly fascinating about unprecedented from a language perspective is the life cycle the word has had this year," Kelly said in a statement. "The pandemic, the protests, the presidential election, extreme climate episodes—2020 sent us searching for a word that could do justice to the scale and pace of all this upheaval. We landed on unprecedented, and this was borne out both in lookups as well as in all the emails, ads, and headlines reminding us we're living in unprecedented times."

"Unprecedented became a cliché, and now the joke is that unprecedented needs to be sent into retirement," he added. "And while overuse has sapped some of its power, unprecedented just won't go away. How better to describe 2020? This shows just how much we humans hunger to find the right word for trying times, how sensitive we are to language use -- and how not even a pandemic can put an end to that great, unifying pastime of complaining about our language pet peeves."


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Lexico, a collaboration between Dictionary.com and Oxford Languages that's focused on multi-language content, also unveiled its first-ever Word of the Year. The choice was "quarantine" and the accompanying Spanish translation "cuarentena."

a man standing in front of a store window: A man walks by the area where people get vaccine at University Hospital's COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, N.J. Dec. 15, 2020. © Eduardo Munoz/Reuters A man walks by the area where people get vaccine at University Hospital's COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, N.J. Dec. 15, 2020.

Defined by Lexico as "a state, period, or place of isolation in which people who may have been exposed to infectious disease are placed," searches for "quarantine" spiked 15,180% on March 18 compared with the beginning of 2020, coinciding with government lockdown orders. Search volume for the word remained high throughout the year, averaging a 323% increase relative to data available for 2019, according to dictionary.com's press release.

Searches for the Spanish translation "cuarentena" also jumped 1,800% in Lexico's Spanish dictionary on April 28.

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"At the beginning of 2020, a technical word like quarantine was remote from most of us," Kelly said in the statement. "For many, it evoked scary images of people in hazmat suits and viral disease disaster films like 'Contagion.' But the pandemic quickly made quarantine a core part of our everyday life and language."

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