What’s in a word? Well, one word, Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2021, provides a spot-on identification of the issue of the year. While controversy about many things swirled in 2021, selection of this particular word cannot be counted among them. The honored word? Vaccine.
Whether you are vaccinated or unvaccinated, were mandated to be vaccinated or voluntarily choose to be vaccinated, distrust scientists and/or the government or adhere to what scientists and/or the government advise, everyone can agree that “vaccine” (not “grease” as the lyrics in a song in the movie “Grease” state) is THE word that has gotten everyone’s attention this year. The split in opinion comes when the impact of the word is evaluated. “Vaccine” can be viewed as a promising medical solution to the pandemic or the source of societal division and political bickering.
How impactful has the word “vaccine” been in our society during 2021? Prolific use of the term led people to look up exactly what it means using a dictionary. According to Merriam-Webster’s website, lookups for “vaccine” increased 601% over 2020 and 1,048% over 2019. That’s mind-blowing to me not just because such interest in the meaning of “vaccine” existed but because people were actually using dictionaries.
Not only did current events cause people to look up the meaning of “vaccine,” but it prompted Merriam-Webster to update the definition of that term. Why? Because the COVID vaccine triggers an immune response in an entirely new way than the previous dictionary definition explained. The former entry, stating stated that a vaccine used an inactivated form of the virus, was revised and expanded in May 2021 to include instances where vaccines are made with genetic material, messenger RNA or mRNA, instead. Medical advances impact dictionaries as well as people.
Use of the word “vaccine” may have been prolific during 2021, but the word itself has been around for some time. It dates back to the 1880’s, still a relatively recent entry into the English language. The derivation of the term is quite interesting. “Vaccine” comes from the Latin word “vacca” which means cow. Holy cow! What does a cow have to do with a vaccine? Interestingly the word was initially used to refer to an inoculation using doses of cowpox found to protect humans against smallpox. Think that method was as controversial back then as the COVID vaccine is now?
To emphasize how current events affect our use of language, Merriam-Webster dubbed “pandemic” the 2020 word of the year. But with the administration of the first doses of the COVID vaccine in December 2020, the stage was set for pandemic’s successor to be “vaccine.”
And even though they didn’t attain the lofty status of 2021 word of the year, new words related to the coronavirus were among the 455 new words Merriam-Webster added to its dictionary in 2021. These included “breakthrough” (an infection occurring in someone who is fully vaccinated against an infectious agent) and “super-spreader” (an event or location where a significant number of people contract the same communicable disease). Let’s use those “new” words in a sentence. How many celebrants will become ill with a breakthrough after spending the evening at a likely super-spreader such as New Year’s Eve in Times Square?
As evidenced by the addition of coronavirus-related words to the dictionary, the English language is alive and ever-changing. New words and phrases are invented all the time with current events frequently behind new dictionary entries. Yup! Thanks to consumer habits, “air fryer” was added by Merriam-Webster in 2021 as was “doorbell camera.” And let’s not forget the impact of pop culture. “Dad bod” (a physique typical of an average father–slightly overweight and not particularly muscular) is officially now a recognized dictionary entry.
But new words, surprisingly, are not the dictionary entries which are the most looked up. Merriam-Webster.com identifies “apathetic,” “cynical,” and “integrity” as three of the top ten words whose meanings are searched. I can understand the need to know what “integrity” really means since a dearth of public figures modeling it can be found. Think I’m being a tad cynical here? Also, in my experience, most folks are strongly for or strongly against a COVID vaccine/vaccine mandate; they are simply not “apathetic.” No one says, “Meh!” when asked to voice their opinion on these subjects.
Whether or not you agree that “vaccine” is the best word to sum up the year 2021, I think we can all agree we are glad 2021 is drawing to a close. The year 2022 is almost here, bringing the hope and promise of a blank slate and a new beginning to all. Let’s hope the need to frequently use the word “vaccine” will fade, and the pandemic will wane and become nothing but a bad memory. Perhaps one day we’ll only think of “vaccine” as a dictionary entry and not a political hot potato.
Do you agree with the selection of “vaccine” as the word of the year for 2021? If not, what word would would you suggest? Were you aware such a large number of new words are added to the dictionary annually? How do you view words knowing that their definitions can and may be revised from time to time?