2021 Words of the Year

The various dictionaries have announced their words of 2021 and to no one’s surprise, they are both related to the pandemic.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year is based on usage evidence drawn from Oxford’s continually updated corpus of more than 14.5 billion words, gathered from news sources across the English-speaking world. The selection is meant to reflect the ethos, mood or preoccupations of the preceding year, while also having the potential as a term of lasting cultural significance. It has traditionally been a scholarly yet often a light-hearted effort, highlighting both cultural change and English’s sometimes goofy way of reflecting it. But last year, the company forwent a single choice and instead highlighted the pandemic’s sudden and pervasive influence on the language more broadly.

The Oxford Language’s 2021 Word of the Year is “Vax”. After analysing 14.5 billion words used in daily news coverage in 2021, they found the word Vax was used 72 times as much as it was in 2020. A relatively rare word until this year, by September it was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year and has generated numerous derivatives that we are now seeing in a wide range of informal contexts, from vax sites and vax cards to getting vaxxed and being fully vaxxed, no word better captures the atmosphere of the past year than vax. The word Vax highlights the medical breakthroughs and the rise of COVID vaccines across the world.

The word vaccine was first recorded in English in 1799, following the British scientist Edward Jenner’s experiments with inoculation against smallpox. In early reports on his experiments, the word vaccine, derived from the Latin Vacca, or cow, was used to refer to the disease and the material from the cowpox pustules he injected into his human research subjects. It was only decades later, according to Oxford’s report on its research, that vaccine came to be used for inoculation against other diseases. Curiously, while the shortened form vax did not appear until the 1980s, the term anti-vax — spelt anti-vacks — appeared early.

Runners-up on this year’s list were “vaccinate,” which increased in use 34-fold this year, and “vaccination,” up 18-fold.

The Cambridge Dictionary has announced “Perseverance” as its Word of the Year 2021. It’s a word that perfectly captures the undaunted will of people across the world to never give up, despite the many challenges of 2021. Perseverance is defined as the continued effort to do or achieve something, even when this is difficult or takes a long time and the word has been looked up globally more than 243,000 times during 2021.

Prior to 2021, perseverance didn’t appear noticeably in lookups on the Cambridge Dictionary website. However, a spike of 30,487 searches for perseverance occurred between 19–25 February 2021, after NASA’s Perseverance Rover made its final descent to Mars on 18th February.

The Collins Dictionary has on the other hand chosen the cutting edge “NFT” or “Non-Fungible Token” as their word of the year. NFT is defined as a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible. Other finalists for the word of the year were pandemic-related words like “double vaxxed” and “hybrid working” as well as “Crypto,” short for cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, and “cheugy,” meaning clunky or outdated.

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