Word of the Year 2021

alex atkins bookshelf words

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,” wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, “and next year’s words await another voice.” To that observation, we can add: this past year’s words also define the language, the conversations, or more accurately, the zeitgeist of the year. And let’s be frank — 2021 was a disappointing year. It was supposed to be a dramatic improvement over 2020, but instead turned out to be a slight improvement — it’s like lighting up a firework expecting it to shoot up into the sky to dazzle us with explosions of colorful light, only to see it sputter and nosedive, landing with a loud thud.

Across the pond, the editors of Oxford Dictionaries selected the word “vax” as Oxford Language’s 2021 Word of the Year, a selection that is meant to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the preceding year as well as having the potential to have lasting cultural significance. In an interview with the New York Times, Fiona McPherson, a senior editor of the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “All these other vaccine words increased, but nothing like vax. It’s a short, punchy, attention-grabbing word. And speaking as a lexicographer, it’s also quite a productive one. You see it used in all sorts of combinations to make new words.” Thanks to social media, words can mutate as quickly as the coronavirus. Faster than you can say Dr. Fauci Ouchie or Dr. Fauci on a Couchie, vax spawned the following linguistic combinations: vax cards, vax sites, vaxxed, double-vaxxed, anti-vaxxer, vaxxie, vaxinista, vaxication, and vaxxident.

Not to be out-vaxxed, the editors of Merriam-Webster selected the word “vaccine” as its 2021 Word of the Year. A spokesperson for the venerable American dictionary explained, “For many, the word symbolized a possible return to the lives we led before the pandemic. But it was also at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequality, and so much more.” Lookups of the word increased dramatically in August, when news about the vaccination appeared on several fronts: mandated vaccines, FDA approvals, and the rollout of booster shots. The editors of Merriam-Webster noted: “This new higher rate of lookups since August has remained stable throughout the late fall, showing not just a very high interest in vaccine, but one that started high and grew during the course of 2021.” Runners up included: insurrection, perseverance, woke, infrastructure, Murraya, cisgender, and Meta.

For 2021 Word of the Year, the editors of Macquarie Dictionary (the Webster’s Dictionary of Australia) selected “strollout,” a colloquial noun that is defined as the slow rollout of the Covid-19 vaccination program in Australia. The word was coined by Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, who tweeted in May 2021: “We don’t have a vaccine rollout, we have a vaccine strollout.” Touche! Managing editor, Victoria Morgan, explained, “At one level it’s got a transparency and a play on words, but at that deeper level, when you think about the significance of it… it’s a really important marker for this time in Australia’s history. Strollout really just shows the people’s dissatisfaction with the vaccine rollout. Maybe this was a way for the public to have their say about it.” Runners up included: brain tickler, menty-b, dump cake, sober curious, wokescold, dry scooping, front-stab, range-anxiety, and hate-follow.

For 2021 Word of the Year, the editors of Dictionary.com selected “allyship,” defined as “the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.” The word allyship is a portmanteau of the noun ally (a person who advocates for or supports a marginalized or politicized group but is not a member of the group)” and –ship, a noun-forming suffix that denotes status or condition. The editors elaborate on their selection: “Allyship carries a special distinction this year: It marks the first time we’ve chosen a word that’s new to our dictionary as our Word of the Year. Our addition of the word allyship to our dictionary in 2021 — not to mention our decision to elevate it as our top word for the year — captures important ways the word continues to evolve in our language and reflects its increased prominence in our discourse. Allyship acts as a powerful prism through which to view the defining events and experiences of 2021 — and, crucially, how the public processed them. It also serves as a compelling throughline for much of our lexicographical, editorial, and educational work across Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com this year. And while we must acknowledge that efforts at allyship are all too often insufficient and imperfect, the word nonetheless stands out for its role in the path out of the continued crises of 2020 for a better 2022.” Runners up included: critical race theory, burnout, and vaccine.

Collins Dictionary, published in Glasgow, Scotland, selected NFT as its 2021 Word of the Year. NFT is an abbreviation for non-fungible token, defined as “a digital certificate of ownership of a unique asset such as an artwork or a collectible.” Editors saw massive spikes in lookups (11,000%) in 2021. Alex Beecroft, managing director of Collins Learning, explained, “NFTs seem to be everywhere, from the arts sections to the financial pages and in galleries and auction houses and across social media platforms.” Runners up included: climate anxiety, double-vaxxed, metaverse, pingdemic, cheugy, crypto, hybrid working, neopronoun, and regencycore.

For 2021 Word of the Year, Atkins Bookshelf has selected “post-truth,” an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” A related term is post-truth politics that is defined as “a political culture where true/false, honesty/lying have become a focal concern of public life and are viewed by popular commentators and academic researchers alike as having an important causal role in how politics operates at a particular point in history.” The concept of post-truth is very similar to a word coined by comedian Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report in 2005: truthiness, defined as “a truthful or seemingly truthful quality that is claimed for something not because of supporting facts or evidence but because of a feeling that it is true or a desire for it to be true.”

Keen language lovers will recall that post-truth was Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2016. Five years ago, here is what editor Casper Grathwohl said in an interview with the BBC: “Fuelled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time. We first saw the frequency really spike this year in June with buzz over the Brexit vote and again in July when Donald Trump secured the Republican presidential nomination. Given that usage of the term hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words of our time.”

Did you notice that last statement: “I wouldn’t be surprised if post-truth becomes one of the defining words or our time”? Little did Grathwohl know that after enduring four years of Trump — when the public was bombarded with alternative facts, post-truthism, swiftboating, gaslighting, and big lies on a daily basis — the world would never be the same. Not only did post-truth find its linguistic footing, it found its footing in everyday life. In short, we were collectively shoved down the rabbit hole to the realm of the absurd — the land of anti-vaxxers, insurrection deniers, Trumpers, and QAnon believers. The days when discourse revolved around rational, critical, independent thinking and a shared reality — verifiable truth and facts — are long gone. As Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Guliani (the Mad Hatter in Trump’s Wonderland) remarked, “Truth isn’t truth.” You don’t say? And that’s the crux of the problem in the post-truth world: we have lost our grasp on the concept of the truth and replaced it with cultism and tribalism. The question we face now is: how long will it take us to find a way out? Perhaps that process might be a future word of the year.

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Read related posts:
Word of the Year 2020
Word of the Year 2019
Word of the Year 2018
Word of the Year 2017
Word of the Year 2016

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