2021’s Word of the Year–Consensus Choice of a Controversial Topic

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.

WONDER-ing Woman:

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?

COVID-19: The Grinch Trying To Steal Christmas 2020

A plot is afoot to steal Christmas, but the usual suspect isn’t the culprit. There’s a new grinch in town here in 2020, one that wasn’t created by the beloved Dr. Seuss. But just like the Grinch who targeted Whoville, this grinch also wants to stop Christmas from coming. The strategy is similar, however, with the trappings of Christmas being eliminated. Who is the mastermind of this evil plot? It’s not a who, it’s a what. It’s COVID-19.

The coronavirus has altered life as we know it during this calendar year. Schools went virtual, sports teams played in bubbles, and people worked remotely. Holidays were affected as well with gatherings at Thanksgiving discouraged. Up next in the crosshairs is Christmas. All we should want for Christmas is to actually have one because what we will get won’t be what we are accustomed to or even want.

Deaths from COVID-19 have now exceeded 300,000. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of St. Louis or Pittsburgh being wiped out. This context is hardly the backdrop for celebrating “the most wonderful time of the year.” But, regardless of what is going on in the world, December 25 remains on the calendar.

Getting together with family will make it feel like Christmas, right? Well, it might if you could do that. Good luck with achieving that Christmas tradition. The Centers For Disease Control (“CDC”) believes that the safest way to celebrate is to stay home with the people with whom you live. Oh, joy to the world–not. Our immediate family members are likely already on our last nerve from quarantine, lockdowns, and social distancing, right?

In particular, things aren’t looking very golden in the Golden State for the holiday gatherings. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued regional stay at home orders on December 3rd, and most of the state is under those restrictive orders. Stores are limiting the number of people allowed inside at one time; retail stores can have a maximum of 20% capacity. Wineries are among the numerous businesses required to close, nonessential travel is banned, and private gatherings of ANY size are off limits. No dine in eating is allowed; thus, you have to get your Who hash to go. Oh what fun it won’t be for Californians….

How about a lively Christmas party to inspire some cheer? That plan is doomed to crash and burn. Michael Osterholm, newly appointed by President-elect Biden to his coronavirus advisory board, has flat out stated: “There is not a safe Christmas party in this country right now.” Realizing how popular his comment would be, Osterholm went on to remark,”I don’t care if I am accused of being the Grinch that stole Christmas.” Sorry, Mr. Osterholm, COVID-19 has already laid claim to that title.

Well, never mind about the gatherings and parties, there are still gifts to be received to make Christmas merry and bright. But exactly what gifts might you be receiving? You thought that getting socks or underwear for Christmas was bad, huh? How about getting a shot? In response to the pandemic, the U.S. has begun its most ambitious vaccination campaign ever.

This attempt to combat COVID-19 has also succeeded in compounding the stress of Christmas shipping of gifts. With millions of doses of vaccine clogging the supply pipes, distribution of Christmas gifts has been bogged down and delayed; many will likely not timely receive their Christmas gifts. But it’s a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that there’s a delay in gift receipt; the good news is that the gift will probably be received in 2021–which is only good because it will no longer be 2020.

How can tiny doses of a vaccine be such a strain on the shipping infrastructure? It’s because those Pfizer doses need VERY special handling. They must be kept in ultracold temperatures. Yup, I’d say -94 degrees Fahrenheit is ULTRAcold.

Adding to the typical stress of the holiday season is more bad news on the COVID-19 front. A mutant strain has reared its ugly head in the U.K. This new variant of the virus may be up to 70% more transmissible and is “getting out of control” per their Health Secretary Matt Hancock. As a result, a tier 4 lockdown, the most restrictive lockdown, was imposed there on Sunday. Meetings with ANYONE outside one’s household are off limits. In addition, flights from the U.K. have been banned by over 40 countries, including Spain, Russia, and Canada. Will Santa be forced to avoid jolly old England when he takes flight on Christmas Eve?

All these COVID consequences point to the modern coronavirus being a grinch like the well-known Dr. Seuss character. The fictional character was a grumpy old creature who attempted to put an end to Christmas by stealing the trappings of the holiday from the Whos in Whoville. The Grinch stole presents, decorations, Christmas trees, and even (GASP!) the roast beast.

Because of the immense popularity of the Seuss story, “grinch” is now included in dictionaries as an informal noun meaning a killjoy or spoilsport. COVID-19 has certainly put a damper on Christmas by stealing people’s ability to gather with others, travel to be with family, get presents shipped in a timely manner, and have asense of peace and well-being. Yes, we’d have to call the coronavirus a grinch.

But in the classic story, Christmas came without the items stolen by the Grinch anyway, and the Whos rejoiced on Christmas even in their absence. Dr. Seuss, who drove a car with a license plate that read “GRINCH,” used this story to criticize the commercialization of Christmas. In the end, his Grinch came to the realization Christmas “perhaps, means a little bit more” than just presents and feasting.

Are we as insightful as Seuss’ Grinch and realize that Christmas is about more than the trappings surrounding it? Think we’re are smart as the Whos? Will we be able to experience the joy of the real meaning of Christmas–the love of God expressed through the birth of his son in a humble stable? Let’s not allow the grinchy COVID-19 to rob us of Christmas–the real one.

WONDER-ing Woman:

Are decorations, ornaments, gifts, and trees essential in order to experience Christmas? Do you need material things to bring you joy during Christmas? Can you be grateful about what the Grinch and COVID-19 teach us about the real meaning of Christmas?