Today Merriam-Webster announced its Word of the Year: Vaccine. While this may seem like an obvious selection for 2021, the data from the dictionary’s website tells a complex story.
“Vaccine lookups increased 600%, and the story is about much more than medicine,” says Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s Editor at Large. “It was at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequity, and so much more. The biggest science event of the year quickly became the biggest political debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine. Few words can express so much about one moment in time.”
The Word of the Year selection is based on lookup volume on Merriam-Webster.com. Although vaccine had a large number of lookups when vaccines were developed and distributed, lookup spikes accompanied debates about mandates and recommendations.
Interest in the word was strong in January with news about vaccines and their efficacy, and in early February when the U.S. reached the milestone of more people vaccinated than infected. The lookups increased dramatically in August, with the introduction of state and federal vaccine mandates. Controversy surrounding President Biden’s September executive order requiring vaccination for federal employees, news about booster recommendations, and authorization of the vaccine for children continued to fuel enormous interest in the word.
Merriam-Webster itself became a small element of the story. In May, as part of the dictionary’s standard revision process, the definition of vaccine was updated to better explain how vaccines work, including the role of mRNA technology, which drove additional lookups.
Other words also stood out in the dictionary’s 2021 data, and they too shed light on the experiences and ideas that shaped the year. Those top lookups include:
- Insurrection in January, used to describe the attack on the U.S. Capitol
- Perseverance in February, after NASA’s “Perseverance” rover landed on Mars
- Infrastructure in April, after President Biden announced his controversial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal
- Nomad in April, with Nomadland winning three Oscars including Best Picture
- Cicada in May, as trillions of the insects emerged from underground after 17 years
- Cisgender, first in May when the word was used in a CIA recruitment video, and again in October when a student used it in a college op-ed
- Murraya in July, after Zaila Avant-garde spelled it correctly to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee
- Guardian in July after Cleveland’s baseball team announced that “Guardians” would replace “Indians” as the team name
- Meta in October, after Facebook changed its company name
- Woke especially in coverage of November’s election, when those on the left were labeled with the word by those on the right
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