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‘Vaccine’ is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year

Searches for the word “vaccine” increased by 601 percent this year at Merriam-Webster.com, according to the dictionary company. (Jackie Molloy for The Washington Post)
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After a year marked by the nation’s immunization effort — from early scrambles to get appointments for shots against the coronavirus, campaigns meant to incentivize holdouts, and now a push for boosters — Merriam-Webster determined “vaccine” is the word of the year for 2021.

Searches for the word “vaccine” increased by 601 percent this year at Merriam-Webster.com, according to the dictionary company, which chooses its word of the year based on lookup data. The winning word seems fitting — in 2020, Merriam-Webster announced that “pandemic” was the word of the year.

Interest in the word “vaccine” has been up since the coronavirus pandemic began — according to Merriam-Webster, lookups for the word surged 1,048 percent from 2019 to 2021.

The growing interest in this year’s word is layered, said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large.

“Not only on the surface is this word a science word, but below the surface, the story is much deeper — this is a cultural, political war we’re fighting, not just in the United States but worldwide,” Sokolowski told The Washington Post in an interview.

“That’s a lot of work being done by one word, no matter what the year,” he added.

There was interest in the word throughout the year, and Sokolowski said he noticed it was in the top 20 to 25 words on the site “almost every single day this year, even when the vaccine was not really in the news.”

The lookup volume for the word was high when coronavirus vaccines were first developed and rolled out across the country — but also increased markedly amid debates about vaccination mandates.

Searches were up at the start of the year as news emerged about the various vaccines and their levels of efficacy. As state and federal vaccine mandates became a cultural and political flash point over the summer, search interest “increased dramatically,” Merriam-Webster said.

Interest in the word kept pace through the rest of the year, driven by President Biden’s sweeping vaccine mandates for federal workers and businesses, then by the availability of the coronavirus vaccines for children, and as reports grew about vaccine boosters.

The high interest is particularly interesting, Sokolowski said, because most people already know this word.

“It’s not a word most adults are encountering for the first time, and yet there it is,” he said, adding, “People use the dictionary in this way — they look up words they already know, but they want more nuance or specificity.”

Earlier this year, the dictionary expanded its definition of “vaccine,” updating it to include the role of messenger RNA technology in the development of shots. The pandemic has required a refresh of the lexicon in many ways — Merriam-Webster recently added “ghost kitchen” and “curbside delivery” to its dictionary.

The dictionary said its other top lookups for 2021 included “insurrection,” following the attack at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

‘Vax’ is Oxford’s word of the year, as pandemic’s ‘Fauci ouchie’ and ‘inoculati’ enter the lexicon

This month, the British company that publishes the Oxford English Dictionary named “vax” as the 2021 word of the year.

Collins Dictionary, based in Scotland, earlier this month said “NFT,” the abbreviation for “non-fungible token,” was chosen as its word of the year.

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