Words of the Year

By Maeve Maddox

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Since the 1990s–beginning with the American Dialect Society—various entities, including dictionaries and individual lexicographers, have announced Words of the Year in English. (The Germans started their Wort des Jahres in 1971.)

In 2021, the US dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and the British dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, are almost on the same page.

For M-W, the word of the year is vaccine. which has been given a revised definition to include the new kinds of vaccination made possible with RNA.

For the OED, the word vax is the choice, along with its related forms:

vax (noun): a vaccine or vaccination
vax (verb): to treat with a vaccination to produce immunity against a disease
vaxxie: (noun) a photograph of oneself taken during or immediately before or after a vaccination, especially one against Covid-19, and typically shared on social media; a vaccination selfie.
anti-vax: (adjective) opposed to vaccination
anti-vaxxer: (noun) a person who is opposed to vaccination
double-vaxxed: (adjective) having received two doses of a vaccine

Another British dictionary, Collins, has chosen the initialism NFT as its number one word in a list of ten words of the year.

NFT: (noun) non-fungible token—a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or collectible; an asset whose ownership is recorded by means of a non-fungible token.

The other nine words on the Collins list include three pandemic-related words:

double-vaxxed: (adjective) having received two doses of a vaccine.

pingdemic: (noun) the epidemic of absences from work caused by “pings” from apps that warned users if they’d been in close contact with an infected person.

hybrid working: (noun) the practice of alternating between different working environments, such as from home and in an office.

The remaining six words on the Collins list include at least two that I’d never heard before.

cheugy: (adjective) something that’s now regarded as clunk, out of date and embarrassing. (The coinage is attributed to Gaby Rasson, a US software developer.)

climate anxiety: (noun) a state of distress caused by concern about climate change.

crypto: (noun) an informal shortening for cryptocurrency; a digital currency used for online purchase.

metaverse: (noun) a proposed version of the internet comprising three-dimensional virtual environments.

neopronoun: (noun) a novel way of referring to someone without using their name, particularly to avoid traditional markers of gender. Examples of neopronouns: xe, ze, ve.

NOTE: I wrote about the concept of neopronouns back in 2015. At the time, Harvard was offering registering students the choice of “the gender-neutral options ze and they.”

When I wrote that post I wondered why anyone thought that ze could be a pronoun. I have since learned that in English’s cousin Dutch, ze actually is a pronoun. I still think it would look weird in English.

Regencycore (noun) a distinctive fashion aesthetic inspired by Georgian styles made popular by the TV show Bridgerton.

M-W’s list of ten additional words reads like a summary of news events and controversies of 2021.

1. insurrection
On January 6, 2021, a mob attacked the US Capitol and the media was filled with words like insurrection and sedition.

2. perseverance
The NASA Mars rover, Perseverance, launched on July 30, 2020, landed on February 18, 2021.

3. woke
Originating in Black English, the term “woke” had gone through so many changes by 2021 that it had itself become controversial. When I wrote about woke in 2019, it was not as widely known as it is now. Check out the Wikipedia article on woke for a thorough timeline.

4. nomad
Produced in 2020, the documentary Nomadland sent people to the dictionary in early 2021. The film was released in January (IMAX theaters) and February (regular theatres and Hulu streaming).

5. infrastructure
On November 15, 2021, President Biden’s controversial infrastructure bill, which had occupied journalists and politicians for months, finally reached the president’s desk and was signed into law.

6. cicada
A generation of cicadas (any of a family [Cicadidae] of homopterous insects which have a stout body, wide blunt head, and large transparent wings and the males of which produce a loud buzzing noise usually by stridulation) called Brood X invaded parts of 15 states, accompanied by plenty of media attention.

7. murraya
A fourteen-year-old named Zaila Avant-garde won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee in July by spelling murraya: a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees (family Rutaceae) having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.

8. cisgender
This word appears on the Ngram Viewer in 1986, but doesn’t take off until about 2010. I first wrote about it in 2015. Now it shows up in enough op-eds and blogs to send readers to the dictionary in droves.

9. guardian
The baseball team based in Cleveland has had several names since it began in 1901 as the Cleveland Bluebirds. In 2020, the club announced that it would be dropping their current name of the Cleveland Indians because of wide-spread objections to the use of Native American names and mascots. The new name comes from some art deco figures on the Hope Memorial Bridge in Cleveland. The statues are called The Guardians of Traffic.

10. meta
When Facebook announced on October 28, 2021 that the company was changing its name to Meta, searches for meta surged. This is a word that possibly deserves a post of its own.

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3 Responses to “Words of the Year”

  • venqax

    On the topic of “new” words, I’m curious about *supremacist*, as in the apparently omnipresent white supremacists. Why not “supremist”? There is often a quick response to unnecessary elongations like preventative and orientate (talking to Americans! Calm down!). Supremacist seems like a perfect candidate for the same criticism. Plus, it has the added downside of being hard to say. Prob’ly, at least. I know for some this will seem a “Besides that Mrs Lincoln…” question, but, still, wer’re speaking linguistically here.

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    I’ve wondered about this myself. “Supremist” has always made more sense to me than “supremacist.” I’ll see if I can dig up enough information and examples to make a post.

  • Daisy Hartwell

    venqax, here’s some info on the topic https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2017/08/supremist.html

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