Lexico’s 2020 Word of the Year

For a version of this article in Spanish, visit ‘La Palabra del A?o 2020 de Lexico’.

While 2020 has already been an eventful year, Lexico is proud to announce an exciting one all its own: its first ever Word of the Year, quarantine, and its Spanish translation, cuarentena. Defined as ‘a state, period, or place of isolation in which people who may have been exposed to infectious disease are placed’, the word quarantine has stood at the centre of the profound ways Covid-19 changed society and language in 2020.

Record search volume for ‘quarantine’ in March 2020

The largest spike in searches for quarantine across Lexico’s dictionaries occurred on 18 March, coinciding with many of the first government lockdown orders and guidelines from leading organisations like the CDC (Centres for Disease Control) in response to the coronavirus. That day, just one week after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic, lookups for quarantine surged 15,180% compared to the beginning of 2020. User interest in quarantine maintained significant volume through the year, averaging a 323% increase relative to data available for 2019.

An origin close to home

As used in medicine, quarantine is first recorded in English in the mid-17th century, a borrowing of the Italian quarantina, ‘forty days’, based on quaranta, ‘forty’, ultimately derived from the Latin quadrāgintā,  meaning the same. During the bubonic plague in the 1400s, quarantina referred to the period of time ships suspected of carrying disease were barred from port. The etymology is resonant, not only given its origins in a past pandemic, but also as some of the earliest outbreaks of Covid-19 struck cruise ships.

The Spanish word for quarantine, cuarentena, comes from the same Latin root as the Italian quarantina. Searches for cuarentena jumped 1,800% in Lexico’s Spanish dictionary on 28 April.

A whole new ‘quarantine’ vocabulary

Not only does the word quarantine capture the public health measures and lived experience of Covid-19, it also illustrates the astonishing transformation of the lexicon because of the pandemic. Quarantine is a prominent example of how an explosion of scientific terms suddenly became essential to daily life, such as asymptomatic, contact tracing, herd immunity, R number, social distancing, and superspreader, not to mention Covid-19 itself, plus coronavirus and SARS-CoV-2

Early in the pandemic, use of quarantine largely adhered to its technical sense, specifically referring to the fourteen-day period of isolation urged, where not mandated, for people exposed to the novel coronavirus. In many places, this isolation was self-imposed, leading to a rapid rise of the terms self-isolation and self-quarantine, meaning ‘remaining apart from others for a period of time in order to avoid the transmission of an infectious disease’. 

Also seeing a rapid rise was the expanded use of quarantine as a verb that takes no object: ‘remain apart from others for a period of time in order to prevent the transmission of an infectious disease to which one may have been exposed’. For instance: the teacher had to quarantine after coming into contact with a parent who tested positive for Covid-19. This verb sense of quarantine along with other updates from Oxford Languages are being added to Lexico in 2021.

Quarantine broadened in popular parlance as a general term for the restrictions of life, work, and school in a pandemic, regardless of one’s exposure to the virus. This extended sense can be further observed in the widespread use of quarantine as a collective frame of reference (e.g., dating during quarantine) as well as a modifier (e.g., new quarantine music and fashion trends).

Quarantine joins a host of other official and unofficial terms for containment practices. Examples include hunker down, isolation, lockdown, self-isolation, shelter-in-place, stay-at-home, and shutdown. Other designations, as documented by Oxford Languages, emerged in varieties of English in Malaysia (movement control order, or MCO), the Philippines (enhance community quarantine, or ECQ), and Singapore (circuit breaker).

Some welcome ‘quarantine’ relief

One thing people certainly found to do amid the confinements of quarantine was invent new words. The quarantine inspired an outpouring of playful formations, revealing the creativity, humour, and resilience people displayed in the face of enormous hardship. Quarantine inspired such punning blends or phrases as quarantini (cocktails made in quarantine); quaranteams (pods or bubbles kept small and exclusive to contain the spread of contagious disease); quaranteens (the next generation of teenagers conceived during the pandemic); quarantimes (quarantine times); and quarantine and chill (the Netflix and chilling of quarantine life).

The word quarantine itself was informally shortened to quar and, distinctive to Australian English, quaz and quazza. All of this innovation is mirrored in similar wordplay based on coronavirus and Covid-19: rona (slang for coronavirus); coronacut (quarantine haircut), coronasomnia (pandemic-related insomnia), covidiot (rebuking someone as an idiot for disobeying Covid-19 safety guidelines), and the Covid-10 or the Covid-15 (weight gained in quarantine).

Speaking of Covid-15, other languages generated quarantine wordplay of their own, such as Coronaspeck, the German equivalent to Covid-15 meaning ‘coronavirus fat’. Spreading among French speakers was quatorzaine, referring to the recommended fourteen-day quarantine period and combining the French for ‘quarantine’ (quarantaine) and ‘fourteen’ (quatorze). Taking off anew in Italian was an older term untore, ‘plague spreader’.

For its part, Spanish supplied cuarempena (also cuarenpena; cuarenta combined with pena, or ‘quarantine sadness’ or ‘quarantine depression’); Gran Confinamiento (the ‘Big Isolation’, alluding to mass lockdowns); los coronabonos (‘corona bonos’ or ‘coronavirus bonds’, debt securities issued by the EU); aplausazo (the practice of applauding healthcare workers at a designated time from home); and cuarentenar, ‘to quarantine’, which became established as a valid alternative for the usual verb construction poner en cuarentena

Language change can never be ‘quarantined’ 

Finally, the new and newly significant vocabulary of Covid-19 required updates to the dictionary at a scale and pace seldom seen in lexicography. In conjunction with Dictionary.com, Lexico’s dictionaries are drawn from the work of Oxford Languages, who have issued hundreds of new and updated entries and senses this year as a result of the tremendous lexical change spurred by the immense social upheaval of 2020.

New entries from the coronavirus update include case fatality rate, contact tracer, CPAP, cytokine storm, frontliner, physical distancing, R number, and spike protein. New senses of existing words include before times, front line, remotely, and shield. In addition to their extensive work on etymologies, audio files, and sensitivity reviews, Oxford Language’s lexicographers also revised thousands of entries—not least of which involved the entry to quarantine itself. These, and many more, updates are coming to Lexico in 2021. Preview key definitions at the end of the article.

At the start of 2020, it would have been hard to imagine a technical word like quarantine, so distant from most people’s experiences and concerns, would become such an ordinary and necessary part of everyday life and language. Though vaccines mean hope is on the imminent horizon, as 2020 comes to an end, millions around the world are still waiting to fully come out of quarantine. This situation only underscores the central place of quarantine in an unprecedented year—and Lexico’s choice of the word as its inaugural, 2020 Word of the Year.


Scores of other words have also defined this extraordinary year. Learn more at Dictionary.com’s 2020 Word of the Year, pandemic, and Oxford Languages 2020 Words of an Unprecedented Year.

Selected updates coming to Lexico

before times


The time before a particular significant event, especially one with disastrous consequences:

  • 'in the before times, my beauty regime was obsessive in approach'
  • 'the band will rebroadcast full-length concerts from the before times'

case fatality rate


The proportion of cases of a disease or condition that are fatal within a specified period of time: 'at this stage the case fatality rate is very high'

contact tracer


A person responsible for identifying individuals who have been in the proximity of a person diagnosed with an infectious disease, in order to isolate, test, or treat them: 'if you get a call from a contact tracer, you must isolate for 14 days, even if you don't have symptoms'


short for continuous positive airway pressure


A method of respiratory therapy in which air is pumped into the lungs through the nose or nose and mouth during spontaneous breathing, used in the treatment of sleep apnoea and other respiratory disorders:

  • 'I had to sleep with a CPAP machine at night'
  • 'doctors say they have since embraced CPAP and other treatments'

cytokine storm


An overactive immune response occurring in various diseases, characterized by the excessive production of cytokines and resulting in intense localized or generalized inflammation.



A worker who deals directly with customers, clients, or other users of an organization's services, especially one who fulfils a role regarded as vital for the community:

  • 'without the medical frontliners no one will prevent the disease from spreading and everyone will be jeopardized'
  • 'a good frontliner has excellent customer-handling skills'
  • 'the shortage of protective equipment for frontliners’

physical distancing


The practice of limiting physical closeness and contact with other people, especially in order to avoid transmitting or catching an infectious disease: 'remember to practise physical distancing to reduce the spread of Covid-19'



[mass noun] A state, period, or place of isolation in which people or animals that may have been exposed to infectious disease are placed: 'horses entering the country must stay in quarantine longer'

[count noun]: 'a six-week quarantine'

[as modifier]: 'quarantine laws'"

Editors’ note: this article has focused the definition of quarantine on its application on ‘people’, excluding ‘animals’, for clarity and relevance. 


[no object] Remain apart from others for a period of time in order to prevent the transmission of an infectious disease to which one may have been exposed: 'we are seeing exponential growth in new cases because people failed to quarantine after travelling abroad'

R number


A figure expressing the rate at which an infectious disease spreads, taken as the average number of cases arising by transmission from a single infected individual:

  • 'there are lots of things we can do to reduce R, including reducing our social contacts by continuing social distancing'
  • 'he warned that an increase in the R number would see a rapid escalation of cases'



Away from a usual workplace or location, making use of communications technology:

  • 'most office workers are now equipped to work remotely'
  • 'the meeting was the first to be held remotely using conferencing software'



British [no object]

Remain apart from others for a period of time in order to avoid catching an infectious disease to which one may be particularly vulnerable: 'they are shielding to protect their own health'

spike protein


(In some human and animal viruses) a glycoprotein projecting from the outer membrane that binds to a receptor on the host cell and facilitates entry of the virus into the host cell.

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