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Words of the Year: 2021

"Vaccine," "vax," "strollout," and other words of the year for 2021.

By
Mignon Fogarty
8-minute read
Episode #858

The word-of-the-year announcements always fascinate me and give a real look into the zeitgeist and the ways different people and countries experienced the last year, and I'm sure it won't surprise most of you that most of last year's words were almost all about the pandemic and politics.

Vaccine

The clear winner for 2021 was "vaccine," which was the word of the year from Merriam-Webster, "The Economist," the Foundation for Emerging Spanish in Spain, and by vote from the readers of "The Portugal News." And Oxford Languages also chose a variation of the word, "vax."

Most of the online dictionaries use their lookup data or corpus data to choose—or at least narrow—their choices. 

For example, in a recent interview in the Zoom show called "That Word Chat" hosted by Mark Allen, who you may know on Twitter as  @EditorMark, Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, said that for the entire year, "vaccine" was in the top 20 or 25 words people were looking up on their site, and that lookups for that word were 1048% higher than in 2019. He said that all the way back in May they were thinking this would likely be the word of the year because it was just so huge. 

And in fact, Merriam-Webster also updated their definition of "vaccine" in May because the new technology, the mRNA vaccines, meant that their definition was out of date because it had previously said that a vaccine was "a preparation of killed microorganisms, living attenuated organisms, or living fully virulent organisms that is administered to produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease," but that's not how mRNA vaccines work. Since the press was talking about mRNA vaccines almost nonstop, Peter said there was an urgent need for more specificity in their definition. So it now has much more information, and they also changed the word "immunity" to "immune response," which now also has its own entry. 

Vax

"Vax" also jumped out from the data to the Oxford Languages people. Fiona McPherson, the senior editor for new words, said Oxford found that people were using "vax" 72 times more often than last year. And she said they also liked that it was "punchy, snappy, and more attention grabbing" than "vaccine." And they liked that it is what language people call a "productive" word, so it gave us a bunch of other words and phrases like "vaxinista," "vaxiphone," "anti-vaxxer," "vax sites," "double vaxxed" and "fully vaxxed."

And how to spell some of those words was also an area of huge debate. Is it "vax" with one X or two? Does "fully vaxxed" have one X or two? Both spellings of both types of words are out there in the world, but lexicographers say that when it's all by itself, "vax" with one X is more common, but when it's inflected, like in "double vaxxed," it's usually written with two X's. Ben Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society new words committee and a language columnist for the "Wall Street Journal," says that he thinks it's probably modeled on the word "doxxed," which means to have publicly and usually maliciously released personal information about someone, because that word is also often spelled with two X's.

The most common spellings are 'vax' and 'vaxxed.'

Strollout

Amanda Laugesen, director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre said "double vaxxed" was also on their short list, and that "vaccine" and "vax" have dominated in Australia too, but ultimately they chose "strollout" as the word of the year, a critical word used a lot in Australia and a bit in New Zealand to describe the slow rollout of vaccination programs.  

Amanda said their goal is to choose words that are specific to Australian usage and not just generally popular worldwide. Although "strollout" had occasionally been used earlier, it seems that the word got a big boost in May when the secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions tweeted "We don't have a vaccine rollout, we have a vaccine strollout." Because we humans do love a good rhyme.

And the nice thing about this word, too, is that it may have uses in the future beyond the pandemic since there are likely to be other, completely unrelated government programs that feel like they've been rolled out too slowly. Yes, "strollout" has a promising future!

Perseverance

Cambridge Dictionary chose a more broad word this year: "perseverance." Publishing manager Wendalyn Nichols says their audience is much more global than the other dictionaries that pick words of the year and that their focus is on English learners, so their data was very different. They didn't see a spike in the words "vaccine" or "vax," for example. 

"Perseverance" initially spiked on their site in February when NASA's Perseverance Rover made its final descent to Mars, but then in following months, it just kept on showing up in the data. "Perseverance" preserved, so to speak. Wendalyn pointed out that while perseverance is something we've needed to deal with COVID-19, we've also needed it to deal with natural disasters and political conflict, so it's a word that covered a lot of ground last year.

As a site for language learners, they also liked that it gave them an opportunity to create teaching materials, for example, highlighting similar words like "determination," "doggedness," and "stick-to-it-iveness."

Overmused

Haggard Hawks, a popular Twitter account about obscure words run by Paul Anthony Jones, chose a word a bit like Cambridge Dictionary's in that it could apply to all the problems of the year: "overmused"—a word from the 17th century that means "worn out from thinking too much." Too much musing.

NFT

Moving on from the pandemic and pandemic-adjacent words, we have Collins dictionary, which chose "NFT," and Dictionary.com, which chose "allyship."

"NFT" is an abbreviation for "non-fungible token." You may be most familiar with it in relationship to digital art like pictures of apes that celebrities have been trading for embarrassing amounts of money. 

I had heard of NFTs before last year, but they definitely came much more into the mainstream in 2021, and it seemed like they were everywhere near the end of the year. I finally got a sense of what they were when I discovered games like Axie Infinity in which you own the characters you play with, which are technically NFTs.

Allyship

John Kelly, associate director of content and education at Dictionary.com, said that "vaccine" and "vax" spiked on their site too, although perhaps not as much as on other sites. It was one of the top contenders, but there wasn't a real obvious standout in their search data. 

So they went on to look at their corpus data and words in the news, and they kept seeing conversations about who gets a voice, who gets valued, who gets space, and they saw that in the big picture, these were stories about allyship. To them, that word really reflected the zeitgeist of the year and brought together things they were seeing in their data and in the culture. "Allyship" is defined as the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of the group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view under its leadership."

John said that this is an unusual choice in that it's also a new word that was added to the dictionary this year, and it's not often that anew word also becomes the word of the year.

Insurrection

The next group of words all come from the vote at the American Dialect Society annual meeting, where about 300 attendees voted on one big word of the year—THE word of the year—and also on words for fun categories like "most likely to succeed" and "most useful word."

"Vaccine" and "vax" came in second in the vote, but the winner was "insurrection," which, incidentally, Cambridge Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and Dictionary.com also specifically mentioned as a word they saw spike on their sites. Ben Zimmer, who oversees the American Dialect Society voting, commented in "That Word Chat" that it's a little unusual for a word that gets a lot of attention at the beginning of the year to win the vote that comes at the end of the year, and said further in a press release, "More than a year after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the nation is still coming to grips with what happened that day. At the time, words like 'coup,' 'sedition,' and 'riot' were used to describe the disturbing events at the Capitol, but insurrection—a term for a violent attempt to take control of the government—is the one that many felt best encapsulates the threat to democracy experienced that day.”

Yassify, Unalive, and Hard Pants

I do love the smaller categories in the ADS voting, and often they come up with words I haven't heard before, but that are emerging. You may remember last year "pog" and "poggers" were discussed during the voting, and I have noticed that I've been hearing them more this year, so sometimes these smaller categories are kind of cutting edge, at least for people my age. 

Examples from this year include:

"Yassify," which was the informal word of the year and means "to apply image filters to a person's photo to transform it into a cartoonishly beautiful image; and more generally to make beautiful or glamorous." As in "Did they yassify this picture? Something is off." or "Maybe I should yassify my hair like this."

"Unalive," which was the euphemism of the year and is a term used as a substitute for "suicide" or "kill" to avoid social media filters, as in "Most of your time as the parent of a freshly baked human is spent keeping it from trying to unalive itself."

"Hard pants," which was the most useful word of the year and refers to pants that lack an elastic waist band or stretchy fabric, unlike the "soft pants" favored by people working from home during the pandemic.

British-American crossover words of the year

And this is getting really long, but I have one more word I want to tell you about because it's especially fun. Lynne Murphy who runs the Separated by a Common Language blog chooses a British word that is invading America each year, and this year, she says the British use of the word "university" is becoming more and more common in American English. 

Whereas Americans used to almost always say they did something "in college" ("I studied English in college"), corpus data shows that more Americans are saying the more British sounding "in university" (as in "I studied English in university"). The especially interesting thing is that while this sounds British to us Americans, it's actually not quite right because British people are much more likely to say "at university" ("I studied English at university"), so it seems we're trying to mimic the British but still putting our American spin on it by just replacing the word "college" ("in university" instead of "in college") instead of adopting the whole British "at university" phrase. That's fascinating to me.

Those are some of the big words of the year, and now it's time to start keeping our lists of what we might want to consider for next year.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.