2021 words of the year: few surprises

What the hell did we just live through? In case, like me, some of your memories are already getting hazy, here are some reminders. Various dictionaries and websites have announced their words of the year.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary 2021 word of the year is vaccine. “In everyday use, words are useful tools that communicate assertions, ideas, aspirations, and uncertainties. But they can also become vehicles for ideological conflict,” the Merriam-Webster website says. “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.”

NPR notes the choice with the headline, “Merriam-Webster’s 2021 word of the year is, of course, ‘vaccine.’” Of course.

For Oxford, the word is vax. “When our lexicographers began digging into our English language corpus data it quickly became apparent that vax was a particularly striking term. A relatively rare word in our corpus until this year, by September it was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year.”

NPR notes dryly, “It would have been pretty difficult to get through 2021 without hearing the word vax at least once.”

For Cambridge, the word is perseverance. “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.” But that’s not all Cambridge has to say. “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.”

By contrast, Collins Dictionary’s word of the year is NFT, the abbreviation for non-fungible token, the unique digital identifier that records ownership of a digital asset, a word that has nothing to do with the pandemic. One of its runner-up words, however, is double-vaxxed.

CNN points out in its commentary to the Collins choice that NFTs made the news in 2021. Yes, there was news besides the pandemic.

Because I speak Spanish, I’m interested in las palabras del año as well.

The FundéuRAE [Spanish Royal Academy Foundation] has chosen vacuna [vaccine]. “Everyone wants to picture the hope this word brings us, which is the beginning of the end of the pandemic.” Last year’s word was confinamiento [lockdown], and, Fundéu says, “the word of the year for 2022 could be very different.”

Other candidates for the Fundéu’s word of the year include cámper [camper van], carbononeutralidad [carbon neutral], criptomoneda [criptocurrency], negationista [denier], and variante [variant].

Meanwhile, readers of La Página del Idioma Español [The Page of the Spanish Language], have chosen covidiota, a word created in 2021 from the English word covidiot. The word resiliencia [resilience] came in second.

Although I don’t speak Catalan, the language used in northeastern Spain, there the word negacionisme [denialism] has been chosen as the word of the year by voters in a poll run by the Neology Observatory of the Department of Translation and Language Sciences at the Pompeu Fabra University and the Institute of Catalan Studies. The word podcast came in second place.

In case you’ve forgotten the year 2020 (lucky you), here’s my post about those words of the year. They also involve a lot of coronavirus-related terms.


In other year-end news, the Time Magazine Person of the Year is Elon Musk. An opinion piece at Politico says it should have been Rupert Murdoch, “someone who is both undeniably influential and undeniably malevolent. It was always the magazine’s intention to recognize impact, not virtue.”

The National Toy Hall of Fame has inducted three playthings for 2021: American Girl Dolls, the board game Risk, and the “universal plaything” sand. There’s nothing like a sandbox to inspire the imagination, even at my age.

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