Dictionary company Merriam-Webster unveiled its word of the year for 2021, and it is "vaccine." That is a logical follow-up to its 2020 word of the year, "pandemic," and it matches the Oxford English Dictionary's word for 2021, "vax." But "while other dictionary companies choose words of the year by committee," The Associated Press reports, "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."
And searchers for "vaccine" increased 601 percent over 2020 and 1,048 percent over 2019, Merriam-Webster said. "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 AP. "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."
"Few words can express so much about one moment in time," Merriam-Webster said.
The dictionary editors updated Merriam-Webster's definition of vaccine earlier this year to encompass the mRNA breakthroughs, but the word itself "is a relatively recent one in English, dating back to the 1880s," the company explained. "Vaccine comes from the Latin word for 'cow,' vacca, because the term was initially used to refer to inoculation using doses of cowpox that, it was discovered, protect humans against smallpox."
Merriam-Webster's runner-up for 2021 was "insurrection," thanks to the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. "Arrests continue, as do congressional hearings over the attack," AP says. "Searches for the word increased by 61,000 percent over 2020."
The other words rounding out the runners-up were "perseverance," "woke," "nomad," "infrastructure," "cicada," "Murraya," "cisgender," "guardian," and "meta." You can read about why those words were big in 2021, what they mean now and their etymology, and how much searches for them increased this year at Merriam-Webster.