Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year Shows Just How Much of a Bummer 2021 Was

Dictionary giant Merriam-Webster released its Word of the Year contenders, with “vaccine” taking the top spot, followed by words like “woke,” “insurrection,” and “cicada.”

Merriam-Webster chooses its Word of the Year based on lookup volume on its website, and Editor at Large Peter Sokolowski said searches for “vaccine” increased by 600% in 2021. While M-W’s data showed lots of look-ups around the arrival of the Covid-19 vaccine at the top of 2021 — because even life-saving medicine is somehow controversial these days — the dictionary noted that searches for “vaccine” remained prominent in relation to the increased politicization of the jab.

“[T]he story is about much more than medicine,” Sokolowski said in a statement. “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.”

Merriam-Webster said searches for “vaccine” first rose in January as the first Covid-19 vaccines were being distributed. More interestingly, though, the publisher said searches spiked again in August as some states issued vaccine mandates, while in September President Joe Biden issued an executive order requiring federal employees be vaccinated. Searches remained high throughout the rest of the year as booster shots were recommended and kids became eligible for the Covid vaccine. 

On its website, Merriam-Webster shared 10 other Word of the Year contenders, which provide a kind of trip down memory lane for 2021 (how enjoyable that trip may be is up for debate). Other widely searched words included “insurrection” (tied of course to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol), “woke” (which has become a right-wing pejorative for progressives, and saw a spike in the lead up to the November elections), and “meta” (thanks to Facebook’s corporate name-change, combined with increasing chat about the impending “metaverse” phase of the internet). 

There were some slightly more fun words on the list, though, including “Nomad,” which saw a spike after Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland won several major Oscars, and “cicada,” searches for which surged like, well, cicadas from the ground, as Brood X resurfaced this summer after living underground for 17 years. And “murraya” — a kind of tropical Asiatic and Australian tree — saw a jump in July after 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde spelled it correctly to win the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

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