This Is Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year

'Vaccine' wins out for 2021
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 29, 2021 1:36 AM CST
This Is Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year
A medical staff member prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, Calif. on Jan. 21, 2021. Merriam-Webster has declared vaccine its 2021 word of the year.   (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

(Newser) – With an expanded definition to reflect the times, Merriam-Webster has declared an omnipresent truth as its 2021 word of the year: vaccine. “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 AP ahead of Monday's announcement. “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,” he said.

The selection 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 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% in lookups this year.

Debates over inequitable distribution, vaccine mandates, and boosters kept interest high, Sokolowski said. So did vaccine hesitancy and friction over vaccine passports. 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. Runners-up included "insurrection," "infrastructure," "perseverance," and "nomad." (Click to see Oxford Dictionary's word of the year, or Collins Dictionary's here.)

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