Wide Angle

How COVID-19 Led Merriam-Webster to Make Its Fastest Update Ever

Previously, one of its quickest additions was the word AIDS.

A clipping showing a definition for "social distance."
A citation slip from Merriam’s files from 1960 for social distance. Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster Inc.

On Aug. 8, 1982, down a single column on page 31, next to an ad for a “velvety black suede” handbag from Lord & Taylor, the New York Times published a story about “a serious disease whose victims are primarily homosexual men … called acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or A.I.D.S.” It was the first time the acronym had appeared in a mainstream publication.

As coverage increased, AIDS—no periods—was regularly in the news. That posed a dilemma for Merriam-Webster Inc. The dictionary publisher’s standards required that words show broad, long-term use before gaining admission to the lexicon. How long? A decade or more wasn’t unusual. But a science editor named Roger Pease recognized the severity of the health crisis and the likely staying power of the term, and pushed for AIDS to be entered as soon as possible. The word was added to a new printing of Merriam’s flagship Collegiate dictionary in 1984. The two-year journey from coinage to print was one of the fastest, if not the fastest, in the history of the dictionary.

Until the coronavirus. Last week, Merriam announced a special update of its free online dictionary with about a dozen words related to the pandemic. At the top of the list was COVID-19. The term—a mash-up of coronavirus disease 2019—was created by the World Health Organization and unveiled on Feb. 11 at a news conference in Geneva. On March 16, Merriam-Webster added it to the dictionary. For a word to go from nonexistent to defined and entered in 34 days isn’t just an unprecedented reflection of a hectic, dire moment in history. It also shows how dictionaries, including America’s oldest and most lexicographically conservative one, are battling for speed, authority, and readers online.

Merriam-Webster dates to Noah Webster’s first American dictionary, published in 1806. Even in the digital age, with none of the space constraints of books, Merriam has clung to a tradition of linguistic fermentation, resisting the temptation to certify trendy words, on grounds they might disappear quickly from the language. Twerk first appeared in 2001 but wasn’t added until 2015. The Twitter sense of tweet took five years. Blog needed six. You will not find smexy or funtastic in Merriam.

“Merriam-Webster has not historically been chasing those clicks,” said lexicographer Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal and chair of the new words committee of the American Dialect Society. The coronavirus update “shows that even Merriam sees the value of having that kind of rapid response as long as it can be done in a responsible way. If they can put their resources to defining social distancing, why shouldn’t they be doing that now?”

Merriam-Webster began monitoring coronavirus-related words as news arrived from China in early January. That’s normal practice. Merriam’s staff of about 20 “definers” and other editors collect in a database “citations” of new or existing words as they are used in the wild. New words, with a short definition and other information, are added to a spreadsheet called, well, New Words. There they sit until accumulated evidence, and an editor’s judgment, determines they are worthy of admission to the good place, the dictionary.

In January, editors at Merriam’s 80-year-old brick headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts, created a special spreadsheet for words emerging from the pandemic. In-house data showed coronavirus—which dates to 1968—pandemic, and quarantine surging in lookups by readers, followed by zeitgeisty words like draconian, lockdown, martial law, xenophobia, apocalypse, calamity, pestilence, and Kafkaesque. But Merriam also tracks failed searches—for words that aren’t in the dictionary. Covid, COVID-19, social distancing, and self-quarantine topped that list. “It was becoming clear that these new entries should get included sooner rather than later,” Joan Narmontas, Merriam’s senior editor for life sciences, told me.

Merriam could have written a blog post about the trending words and saved the actual lexicography for later. That was the initial plan. A regular, periodic update featuring several hundred new words was scheduled for April; the new coronavirus words, and revisions of existing entries with new coronavirus-related senses, would be included in that. Definitions for coronavirus disease 2019 and COVID-19 were written first, followed by community spreadcontact tracing, self-quarantinesocial distancingsuper-spreader, and a few others.*

Even the April timeline was by Merriam standards a rush, and not just because of the dictionary’s wait-and-see philosophy. Dictionary databases are complicated. Entries include lots of disparate parts: headword, pronunciation, cross-references, example sentences, etymology. Adding hundreds of words takes months of editorial and tech work. But recent upgrades in Merriam’s data-processing system had shaved the time needed to add new entries from weeks to hours. “It seemed clear that our responsibility was to provide the answers people are looking for without delay,” Merriam’s publisher and chief digital officer, Lisa Schneider, told me.

So the dictionary did something the dictionary had never done: It acted like a newsroom on deadline. Schneider discussed creating a special update of coronavirus words with the staff on March 9. The batch of 20 entries was keyed into a data file, proofread, and delivered to tech on March 12. Editors reviewed the material to check for display problems the next day. The words went live at noon Eastern on March 16.

Less than five minutes later, before Merriam announced the update on its website or promoted it on Twitter, traffic spiked  at COVID-19. That kind of search jump for a new entry had never happened before. It indicated that people were looking up the word constantly, and now Merriam had something for them to find, which was good for the dictionary’s editorial credibility and its page views. On the company’s Slack channel, associate life sciences editor Chris Connor wrote, “clearly this information was in demand.”

That wasn’t surprising. “When everything’s in flux—news is coming at you from everywhere, and you aren’t sure what’s accurate and what’s not—people tend to want an objective authority to turn to,” Kory Stamper, a former editor at Merriam-Webster and author of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, told me. “We already think of dictionaries as authorities, so it’s not all that surprising that, when people want clear information about something, they turn to them.”

The pandemic has been long-lasting, far-reaching, and constantly shifting—and has involved lots of unfamiliar, nuanced, and, depending on the source, conflicting language. “Individual words and phrases are especially fraught right now,” Stamper said, “and because the responses are so local, the words we use to talk about the pandemic also end up being local. Is a ‘stay-at-home order’ the same as a ‘shelter-in-place order’? What’s an ‘essential’ business? What’s a ‘dry cough’? These questions might have been idle curiosity a month ago, but now they’re literally a matter of life and death.”

Merriam’s main American competitor, Dictionary.com, has posted articles on distinctions in meaning that, based on its search lookups, appear to be confusing readers: quarantine vs. isolation, respirator vs. ventilator, epidemic vs. pandemic. “As a grammar break,” Dictionary.com senior research editor John Kelly told me, the site has written about whether inflected forms of cancel are spelled with one L or two, because as society shuts down, people are looking that up too. “There’s curiosity all up and down the language,” he said, “and it’s all consistently tracking news around the coronavirus.”

Kelly said Dictionary.com is preparing its own batch of traditional definitions, including shelter in place, PPE, and the informal shortening rona. For its stand-alone slang silo—which currently features blue waffle and wenis—the site is drafting more-casual entries for covidiot, moronavirus, quarantini, virtual happy hour, doom scrolling, and coronials. “I think there’s going to be a lot more wordplay,” Kelly said. “But as with a lot of slang, it’s short-lived.”

As is often the case in language, some of the new words associated with the pandemic aren’t new at all. Community spread dates to a 1945 article in the Scientific Monthly titled “Sanitary Ventilation by Radiant Disinfection.” Patient zero first appeared in Randy Shilts’ 1987 book about AIDS, And the Band Played On; the Oxford English Dictionary added it in 2005, but it had been bypassed by Merriam for more than 30 years. Social distance has a sociological meaning that’s been around since 1824. The updated entry includes the sense with which the world is suddenly familiar. The noun social distancing now has its own spot too.

There’s more to come in Merriam’s regular update next month—alternate forms of the main virus (Covid-19COVID19, CV-19, plain old COVID), epidemic curvespike protein, forehead thermometer, temporal thermometer, and the potential coronavirus treatment drugs remdesivir and favipiravir. Use of the less-impersonal physical distance has surged since the World Heath Organization made a linguistic policy switch last week, so Merriam is adding noun and verb forms for that, plus the noun physical distancing. WFHwork from home—also will get a permanent home in the dictionary.

Schneider, the Merriam publisher, said the emergency coronavirus update doesn’t mean the dictionary is relaxing its standards. (I’m pretty confident covidiot and quarantini won’t ever crack Merriam.) But these are extraordinary times, even at the dictionary. “I wouldn’t anticipate other categories of words seeing this type of speed to entry,” Schneider said, “but unfortunately here we are, and we did what we thought was right and useful.”

Correction, March 27, 2020: This article originally misidentified one of the terms added to the dictionary as contact spread. The term is contact tracing.