The Merriam-Webster dictionary selected “vaccine” as the word of 2021. The publishing company noted that the word holds particular significance both as a medical term and a vehicle for ideological conflict. Likewise, interest in vaccines started high and grew during the course of 2021.
For many, the word symbolized a possible return to the lives we led before the pandemic, it said in an announcement. But it was also at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequality, and so much more.
The word of the year is determined by data, according to Merriam-Webster, and this means it must have been a top lookup at Merriam-Webster.com in the past twelve months, with a significant increase in lookups over the previous year.
Lookups for the word vaccine increased 601% year-over-year from 2020, and were up 1,048% from 2019, the dictionary said. It added that interest in the word has been high since the start of the pandemic, with people searching and discussing the funding, development and distribution of vaccines well before they were actually available at pharmacies.
And lookups of vaccine jumped by 535% in August, which Merriam-Webster says is because discussions about policy, approval, and vaccination rates — rather than the vaccine itself — sent people to the dictionary.
The definition used to be: A preparation of killed microorganisms, living attenuated organisms, or living fully virulent organisms that is administered to produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease.
However now it reads, 1 : a preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body's immune response against a specific infectious agent or disease: such as a : an antigenic preparation of a typically inactivated or attenuated (see ATTENUATED sense; 2, a pathogenic agent (such as a bacterium or virus) or one of its components or products (such as a protein or toxin) b : a preparation of genetic material (such as a strand of synthesized messenger RNA) that is used by the cells of the body to produce an antigenic substance (such as a fragment of virus spike protein)
The dictionary had several runners up for Word of the Year. The other contenders include insurrection, perseverance, woke, infrastructure, Murraya, cisgender and Meta. But they couldn't compete with vaccine for the top spot.