Word of the year 2021 captures the mood again

December 29, 2021 by Alison Tunley

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Word of the yearIf you were hoping for some distraction from pandemic news in the annual announcements of word of the year from dictionary publishers and other linguistic organisations, you are going to be disappointed. Perhaps not surprisingly, the shortlisted words and eventual winners are united by their links with the ongoing Covid-19 situation.

Oxford Languages and Merriam Webster have vax and vaccine respectively as their 2021 choices. The lexicographers at Oxford Languages noted a particularly precipitous rise in frequency for the word vax as well as a large number of derivative forms, such as fully vaxxed, anti-vax etc. In September 2021 the word vax was 72 times more frequent in their corpus than it had been the previous year. The word vaccine, which was already a common lexical item, more than doubled in frequency between September 2020 and September 2021. The Oxford Languages Word of the Year 2021 report takes you on an enlightening tour of the lexicographic background to their choice, including a historical account of the word vaccine from its earliest use in the 1790s when Edward Jenner carried out his work on smallpox.

As well as capturing the change in use for existing vocabulary items, the lexicographers at Oxford University Press round up several new lexical terms, and again there is a pandemic theme to these neologisms. There is vaxxie, a selfie you take while getting your vaccine, and vaxinista, someone who is vaccinated and flaunts this status on social media. In honour of Dr Anthony Fauci (the USA’s top infectious disease expert), we have the splendid Fauci ouchie, which even spawned stickers for sale, enabling you to advertise your newly vaccinated status. Finally, someone who has posted their vaxxie on Insta, and earned their status as a vaxinista having got their Fauci ouchi might be described as a member of the inoculati (or the fully-vaxxed as the rest of us might know it).

Collins Dictionary takes a step away from all things Covid by nominating NFT as its word of the year, but frankly this blog is going to gloss over that choice as the best that can be said for the various dictionary definitions are that they are a sure-fire cure for insomnia. Just try reading a “non-fungible token is a unique and non-interchangeable unit of data stored on a blockchain”, or maybe visit Investopedia and try not to nod off while processing the information that “NFTs are … cryptographic assets …. with unique identification codes and metadata that distinguish them from each other … [which] cannot be traded or exchanged at equivalency.” But even Collins couldn’t entirely escape the coronavirus, with a shortlist that includes double vaxxed, pingdemic and hybrid working.

Cambridge Dictionary gives us perseverance as the 2021 lexical winner (jointly inspired by public resolve in the face of ongoing Covid tribulations and the Mars rover exploits). A similarly uplifting choice comes from Dictionary.com with allyship, a reflection of the way social justice movements dominated the news this year.

But the final word should go to the Australian National Dictionary Centre with the magnificent portmanteau strollout, capturing frustration over the slow roll-out of the Covid-19 vaccine (see this blog’s previous round up of wonderful and not so wonderful portmanteaus). Their shortlist also included menty-b, as in “Have all the lockdowns given you a menty-b?”, which is another fine neologism in the best Australian tradition for inventive slang, also covered recently in this blog.

At any rate, I suspect lexicographers are already working on their wish list for next year. All I want for Christmas 2022 is a WOTY that has nothing to do with coronavirus.

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