With an expanded definition to reflect the times, “vaccine” has been declared as the 2021 word of the year by Merriam-Webster.
Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, Peter Sokolowski, called the word “an omnipresent truth” and said it “was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021,” ahead of Monday’s (29 November) announcement.
Speaking to the Associated Press, he continued: “It really represents two different stories. One is the science story, which is this remarkable speed with which the vaccines were developed. But there's also the debates regarding policy, politics and political affiliation.
“It's one word that carries these two huge stories.”
The selection follows “vax” being chosen as the word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary’s publishers.
Merriam-Webster’s 2020 word of the year was “pandemic”, as the novel coronavirus sent the world into prolonged periods of lockdown.
“The pandemic was the gun going off and now we have the after-effects,” Sokolowski said.
At Merriam-Webster, lookups for “vaccine” increased 601 per cent over 2020, when the first US shot was administered in New York in December after quick development, and months of speculation and discussion over efficacy.
The world's first jab occurred earlier that month in the UK.
Compared to 2019, when there was little urgency or chatter about vaccines, Merriam-Webster logged an increase of 1,048 per cent in lookups in 2021.
Debates over inequitable distribution, vaccine mandates and boosters kept interest high, according to Sokolowski, as well as vaccine hesitancy and friction over vaccine passports.
The first known use of the word “vaccine” dates back to 1882 but references pop up earlier related to fluid from cowpox pustules used in inoculations, Sokolowski said.
Earlier this year, Merriam-Webster added to its online entry for “vaccine” to cover all the talk of mRNA vaccines, or messenger vaccines such as those for Covid-19 developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
While other dictionary companies choose words of the year by committee, Merriam-Webster bases its selection on lookup data, paying close attention to spikes and, more recently, year-over-year increases in searches after weeding out evergreens.
“Insurrection”, “infrastructure”, “perseverance” and “nomad” were among the runners-up in the word biography of 2021.
Interest in “insurrection” was driven by the deadly siege on the US Capitol on 6 January. Arrests continue, as do congressional hearings over the attack by supporters of former President Donald Trump.
Searches for the word increased by 61,000 per cent over 2020, Sokolowksi revealed.
Meanwhile, the word “nomad” had its moment with the 2020 release of the Oscar-winning film Nomadland. It went on to win three Oscars in April this year, including best picture, director (Chloé Zhao) and actress (Frances McDormand).
Zhao became the first woman of colour to win best director.
Other words in Merriam-Webster's Top 10 include “cicada” (after the insects took over American neighbourhoods and homes this year), and “meta”, which is the lofty new name of Facebook's parent company.,
The company has been declaring a word of the year since 2008.
Additional reporting by agencies
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