With one month left in 2021, Merriam-Webster has announced that "Vaccine" is the Word of the Year. No matter if you're scrolling through your social media platform of choice or watching the daily/nightly news, it was hard to avoid either reading or seeing the word "vaccine." Mandates for the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine have helped the world reopen following the devastating pandemic, which has become a controversial topic among politicians and citizens. Merriam-Webster selected "Vaccine" for 2021's Word of the Year, but the company revealed how the story is more complex than readers may suspect.
"Vaccine lookups increased 600%, and the story is about much more than medicine," says Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's Editor at Large. "It was at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequity, and so much more. The biggest science event of the year quickly became the biggest political debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine. Few words can express so much about one moment in time."
The process of how the Word of the Year is chosen comes down to the lookup volume on Merriam-Webster.com. Interest in "vaccine" increased as the year moved on, with lookups spiking debates about mandates and recommendations. February saw the U.S. reach the milestone of more people vaccinated than infected, with searches increasing again in August when states and federal vaccine mandates were implemented. The September executive order from President Joe Biden required vaccinations from federal employees, leading to more controversy that also included booster recommendations and the authorization of vaccines for children five and older. Merriam-Webster updated the definition of "vaccine" in May as part of the dictionary's standard revision process. The update helps to better explain how vaccines work, and the role of mRNA technology.
Other highly-searched words that stood out month-by-month include "Insurrection" in January after the U.S. Capitol attack; "Perseverance" in February, due to NASA's "Perseverance" rover landing on Mars; April saw "Infrastructure" following President Biden announced his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal; "Nomad" in April after Nomadland won three Oscars; "Cicada" in May when trillions of the insects emerged after spending 17 years underground; "Cisgender" in May after a CIA recruitment video used the word, with it reappearing in October after a student used it in a college op-ed; "Murraya" in July following Zaila Avant-garde correctly spelled it to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee; July was "Guardian" when the Cleveland baseball team announced it was changing its team name from "Indians"; Facebook's new company name "Meta" took over October; and "Woke" in November for the month's election.
How does "Vaccine" sound as Merriam-Webster's 2021 Word of the Year? Let your voice be heard in the comments.