Merriam-Webster chooses vaccine as the 2021 word of the year

Merriam-Webster’s 2021 Word of the Year is vaccine. It has an updated definition that reflects the times.

“This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, told The Associated Press ahead of Monday’s announcement.

“It really represents two different stories. The first is science, the remarkable pace at which vaccines were created. But there’s also the debates regarding policy, politics and political affiliation. It’s one word that carries these two huge stories,” he said.

The selection follows “vax” as word of the year from the folks who publish the Oxford English Dictionary. And it comes after Merriam-Webster chose “pandemic” as tops in lookups last year on its online site.

“The pandemic was the gun going off and now we have the aftereffects,” Sokolowski said.

At Merriam-Webster, lookups for “vaccine” increased 601% over 2020, when the first U.S. 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.

Merriam-Webster’s 2019 lookups saw an 1,048% rise in comparison to the previous year, when vaccine talk was less urgent. Sokolowski explained that there was a lot of interest in the issues surrounding vaccine mandates, fair distribution and boosters. Also, vaccine hesitancy was high as were frictions over vaccine passports.

A medical staff member prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, Calif.
Tudor Ranch in Mecca is where a medical staff member makes the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination.

The word “vaccine” wasn’t birthed in a day, or due to a single pandemic. Sokolowski stated that although the 1882 date is the first documented use of “vaccine”, references to fluid from pustules inoculations have been made earlier. It was borrowed from the New Latin “vaccina,” which goes back to Latin’s feminine “vaccinus,” meaning “of or from a cow.” The Latin for cow is “vacca,” a word that might be akin to the Sanskrit “vasa,” according to Merriam-Webster.

Inoculation, on the other hand, dates to 1714, in one sense referring to the act of injecting an “inoculum.”

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.

Merriam-Webster chooses words of the Year by committee. While some dictionary companies do this, Merriam-Webster uses lookup data to make its decision. This includes spikes, and more recently year-over-year growths in searches following weeding out evergreens. Since 2008, the company declares a word-of-the year. The word biography of 2021 was one of its runners-up:

INSURRECTION: Interest was driven by the deadly Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol. The attack on President Donald Trump’s supporters continues to lead to arrests and congressional hearings. Some of Trump’s allies have resisted subpoenas, including Steve Bannon.

Sokolowksi reported that the number of searches for this word has increased by 61,000% compared to 2020.

Insurrection was a runner-up for word of the year, following the events of the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.
After the Capitol Riot on January 6, 2021, Insurrection came in second place for word of year.
Stephen Yang

INFRASTRUCTURE: President Joe Biden was able to deliver what Trump often spoke of but never achieved: A bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law. When Biden proposed help with broadband access, eldercare and preschool, conversation changed from not only roads and bridges but “figurative infrastructure,” Sokolowski said.

“Many people asked, what is infrastructure if it’s not made out of steel or concrete? Infrastructure, in Latin, means underneath the structure,” he said.

PERSEVERANCE: It’s the name of NASA’s latest Mars rover. It was launched on Feb. 18, 2021. “Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to the Red Planet, with a name that embodies NASA’s passion, and our nation’s capability, to take on and overcome challenges,” the space agency said.

Alexander Mather (14 years old seventh grader at Lake Braddock Secondary school in Burke, Virginia) came up with the name. NASA organized an essay contest. He was among 28,000 K-12 students who submitted entries.

NASA's Perseverance Mars rover taking a selfie over a rock nicknamed 'Rochette.' Perseverance was another runner-up for word of the year.
NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover taking a selfie over a rock nicknamed ‘Rochette.’ Perseverance was another runner-up for word of the year.

NOMAD: The word had its moment with the 2020 release of the film “Nomadland.” It went on to win three Oscars in April 2021, including best picture, director (Chloé Zhao) and actress (Frances McDormand). Zhao was the first female of color to be awarded best director.

The AP’s film writer Jake Coyle called the indie success “a plain-spoken meditation on solitude, grief and grit. He wrote that it “struck a chord in a pandemic-ravaged year. It made for an unlikely Oscar champ: A film about people who gravitate to the margins took center stage.”

Other words in Merriam-Webster’s Top 10: Cicada (we had an invasion), guardian (the Cleveland Indians became the Cleveland Guardians), meta (the lofty new name of Facebook’s parent company), cisgender (a gender identity that corresponds to one’s sex assigned at birth), woke (charged with politics and political correctness) and murraya (a tropical tree and the word that won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee for 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde).

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