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The COVID-19 pandemic dominated our lives ― and our vocabulary ― in 2021. Dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster has named “vaccine” its word of the year.
“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.
“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.
Lookups for the word increased 601% from 2020, Merriam-Webster said in a news release, and went up 1048% from 2019 to 2021. Political conflict, not just a need for information, drove interest in the word.
“The promising medical solution to the pandemic that upended our lives in 2020 also became a political argument and source of division,” Merriam-Webster said. “The biggest science story of our time quickly became the biggest debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine.”
“Pandemic” had the most lookups last year and “was the gun going off and now we have the aftereffects,” Sokolowski said.
Interest in “vaccine” was so high that Merriam-Webster expanded the definition to include new terminology related to the pandemic, such as messenger RNA.
The Associated Press said Merriam-Webster has been naming a word of the year since 2008 and bases its selection on lookup numbers after weeding out evergreens.
Other top words for 2021 were insurrection, infrastructure, perseverance (the name of NASA’s Mars rover), and nomad (for the movie “Nomadland.”)
The Associated Press. “Merriam-Webster chooses vaccine as the 2021 word of the year”
Merriam-Webster. “Word of the Year: Vaccine”
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