The Columbus Dispatch

Merriam-webster chooses vaccine as 2021 word of the year

- Leanne Italie

NEW YORK – With an expanded definition to reflect 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, Merriamweb­ster’s editor-at-large, told The Associated Press.

“It really represents two different 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 affiliation. It’s one word that carries these two huge stories,” he said.

The selection follows “vax” as word of the year from the folks who publish the Oxford English Dictionary. And it 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 aftereffects,” Sokolowski said.

At Merriam-webster, lookups for “vaccine” increased 601% over 2020, when the first U.S. shot was administer­ed in New York in December after quick developmen­t, and months of speculatio­n and discussion over efficacy. The world’s first jab occurred earlier that month in the UK.

Compared to 2019, when there was little chatter about vaccines, Merriamweb­ster 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.

The word “vaccine” wasn’t birthed in a day, or due to a single pandemic. The first known use stretches back to 1882 but references pop up earlier related to fluid from cowpox pustules used in inoculatio­ns, Sokolowski said. It was bor

rowed from the New Latin “vaccina,” which goes back to Latin’s feminine “vaccinus,” meaning “of or from a cow.” The Latin for cow is “vacca,” a word that might be akin to the Sanskrit “vasa,” according to Merriam-webster.

Inoculatio­n, on the other hand, dates to 1714, in one sense referring to the act of injecting an “inoculum.”

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 Pfizerbiontec­h 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. The company has been declaring a word of the year since 2008. Among its runners-up in the word biography of 2021:

Insurrecti­on: Interest was driven by the deadly Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol. Arrests continue, as do congressio­nal hearings over the attack by supporters of President Donald Trump. Some of Trump’s allies have resisted subpoenas.

Searches for the word increased by 61,000% over 2020, Sokolowksi said.

Infrastruc­ture: President Joe Biden was able to deliver what Trump often spoke of but never achieved: A bipartisan infrastruc­ture bill signed into law. When Biden proposed help with broadband access, eldercare and preschool, conversati­on changed from not only roads and bridges but “figurative infrastruc­ture,” Sokolowski said.

“Many people asked, what is infrastruc­ture if it’s not made out of steel or concrete? Infrastruc­ture, in Latin, means underneath the structure,” he said.

Perseveran­ce: It’s the name of NASA’S latest Mars rover. It landed Feb. 18, 2021. “Perseveran­ce is the most sophistica­ted rover NASA has ever sent to the Red Planet, with a name that embodies NASA’S passion, and our nation’s capability, to take on and overcome challenges,” the space agency said.

The name was thought up by Alexander Mather, a 14-year-old seventh-grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. He participat­ed in an essay contest organized by NASA. He was one of 28,000 K-12 students to submit entries.

Nomad: The word had its moment with the 2020 release of the film “Nomadland.” It went on to win three Oscars in April 2021, including best picture, director (Chloé Zhao) and actress (Frances Mcdormand). Zhao became the first woman of color to win best director.

The AP’S film writer Jake Coyle called the indie success “a plain-spoken meditation on solitude, grief and grit. He wrote that it “struck a chord in a pandemic-ravaged year. It made for an unlikely Oscar champ: A film about people who gravitate to the margins took center stage.”

Other words in Merriam-webster’s Top 10: Cicada (we had an invasion),

guardian (the Cleveland Indians became the Cleveland Guardians), meta (the lofty new name of Facebook’s parent company), cisgender (a gender identity that correspond­s to one’s sex assigned at birth), woke (charged with politics and political correctnes­s) and

murraya (a tropical tree and the word that won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee for 14-year-old Zaila Avantgarde).

 ?? DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP ?? A sign directs motorist to a vaccinatio­n site in east Denver. Merriam-webster has declared “vaccine” its 2021 word of the year.
DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP A sign directs motorist to a vaccinatio­n site in east Denver. Merriam-webster has declared “vaccine” its 2021 word of the year.

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