If it feels like news surrounding vaccines and its detractors have come to epitomize nearly all aspects of recent daily life, that’s because it kind of has according to some of the world’s top dictionaries.
In a new report, Massachusetts-based Merriam-Webster named “vaccine” its word of the year, claiming lookups of the word increased by 601% year over year from 2020. That figure swells to an astounding 1048% increase when compared to 2019 levels.
That continual increase is one example of how, in many ways, 2021 felt like something of a sequel year to 2020. While word searchers tended to look up vaccines related to their medical context in the first half of the year, the report claims that all changed around August, when people started searching more in terms of policies and rules related to vaccines.
“For many, the word symbolized a possible return to the lives we led before the pandemic,” the report reads. “But it was also at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequality, and so much more.”
Merriam-Webster’s decision comes on the heels of a similar verdict from rival word nerds Oxford Languages (responsible for the Oxford English Dictionary) which named “vax” its word of the year. As was the case with Merriam-Webster’s naming, the term vax encompasses more than the mere materials transfused into someone’s skin. The word plays a supporting role in other major topics that have dominated public attention as well, including, “vaccine mandates” “vaccine rollouts,” “anti-vaxxer,” and “vaccine-hesitancy” among others. All in all, Oxford’s recent report estimates the use of the word was up 72-percent from the same time the previous year.
“For lexicographers, it is rare to observe a single topic impact language so dramatically, and in such a short period of time become a critical part of our everyday communication,” the Oxford report reads.
“Vaccine” wasn’t the unanimous top choice amongst the dictionary Inteligencia though. Last week, Collins Dictionary, based out of Glasgow, went the crypto route, choosing NFT, or non-fungible token. In that case, the dictionary says it saw an 11,000% increase in usage of the word over the past year, something relatively unheard of for abbreviations.
“It’s unusual for an abbreviation to experience such a meteoric rise in usage, but the data we have from the Collins Corpus reflects the remarkable ascendancy of the NFT in 2021,” Collins Learning managing Director Alex Beecroft told The Guardian.
Unfortunately for those sick of the pandemic, usage of “vaccine” isn’t likely to fade into obscurity anytime soon unlike previous top contenders like “Laurel,” or “bigly.”
Only about 55.6% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine according to the New York Times, with just around 44% fully vaccinated. Making things worse, new Covid-19 variants like Omicron could force vaccine makers to develop jabs that specifically target them, a process that could take months to develop. Similarly, the declining efficacy of current vaccines may require multiple rounds of boosters, which could keep the word front and center as well.
In the meantime, debates over mandates, return to office requirements, and high-profile vaccine skeptics are likely to continue dominating attention in 2022, which is gearing up to look like the third volume of a Tolkien length trilogy.
As a recap, here’s Merriam Webster’s word of the year for the past five years:
- 2016: Surreal
- 2017: Feminism
- 2018: Justice
- 2019: They
- 2020: Pandemic