Filipino culture

‘Pandemya’ is Sawikaan Word of the Year 2020

JC Gotinga
‘Pandemya’ is Sawikaan Word of the Year 2020
This one word brought forth many others that are now constantly on people's lips, like 'social distancing' and 'contact tracing,' and gave old words like 'virus' and 'testing' new meaning

What word best encapsulates the common Filipino experience this year?

Presenters at Sawikaan 2020: Edisyong Pandemya (Pandemic Edition) put forward terms that, before March this year, were very rarely on Filipinos’ lips, if at all. Some were not even coined before then.

“Ayuda,” “blended learning,” “contact tracing,” “quarantine,” “social distancing,” “testing,” “virus,” and “webinar” were 8 of the top 10 “Salita ng Taon” (Words of the Year) selected by the Filipinas Institute of Translation based on the best entries – with abstract explanations – that came in after a public callout in August.

“2020” itself is one of the top 10, for being the name of the year humanity will be talking about for a long time, and will probably never forget.

But the one word that put all these other words in people’s mouths – new terms and old ones that have taken on new meanings – is already in the title of the event, for very obvious reasons: “pandemya” (pandemic).

“Pandemya” is Sawikaan’s Salita ng Taon (Word of the Year) for 2020.

“Sa tingin ko, ito ‘yung pinakamalaking salita na may pinakamakabuluhang kahulugan, na sa tingin ko ay nararapat talagang maipaliwanag sa mga tao kung ano talaga ang kalikasan at katangian ng isang pandemya, dahil napakalaki ng epekto nito sa mundo,” said Zarina Joy Santos, whose paper defending “pandemya” as the word of the year bested the other 9.

(In my opinion, this is the biggest word with the most relevant meaning, which I think should be explained to the people as to the nature and characteristics of a pandemic, because it has a huge impact on the world.)

Many Filipinos didn’t seem to know what a pandemic was until it hit the country in March, Santos said. Filipinos hardly ever Googled “pandemya” or “pandemic” before COVID-19, she added.

Santos said she also pushed for “pandemya” to be the country’s word of the year for 2020 to help get Filipinos to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, and to prepare for future pandemics, because they are bound to happen.

Although the 9 other presenters defended their “words of the year” excellently, “pandemya” is the “root cause” of the other words making the shortlist, the “mother” of all the other entries, said Santos.

Second place: ‘Social distancing’

“Social distancing” came in second. Yol Jamendang, the term’s presenter, described the misery social distancing is causing many people, himself included, and how it embodies the authorities’ ineptitude in addressing the pandemic.

Ang dapat itakwil at layuan ay ‘yung mga lideratong palpak, at hindi ang isa’t isa (What we should disown and shun is inept leadership, and not one another),” Jamendang said.

Third place: ‘Contact tracing’

“Contact tracing” placed third. Its presenter Romeo Peña highlighted how the term took on a meaning unique to the Philippine context. He associated it with red-tagging and Oplan Tokhang under the Duterte administration.

“Tokhang” was Sawikaan’s Salita ng Taon in 2018.

On a lighter note, Peña noted how Filipinos joked about how they thought “tsismosas” or neighborhood gossips would make good contact tracers.

The presenters defended the words in the top 10 with full-on research papers. The institute judged the competition based on these papers.

National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario, founder of the Filipinas Institute of Translation, said not all entries to this year’s Sawikaan were pandemic-related, but the institute wanted to focus on the pandemic because, undoubtedly, it defined 2020 not just for Filipinos, but for humanity itself. –

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article said “contact tracing” placed second while “social distancing” came in third. We have corrected this article by inverting these rankings.

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.