Ending 2021 marked by the pandemic, one of the most prestigious English dictionaries chose its word of the year and did not attract anyone's attention.
As they do every year, the Merriam-Webster dictionary authorities chose the word of the year. The selection is made based on the volume of searches that a comment has in the year in question. In 2020, the expression of choice was pandemic. In 2021, the selected one is a vaccine.
"It is the most significant scientific event of the year that soon became the primary political debate in the United States. And the word at the center of the two debates was the same, vaccines. So few words by themselves can express so much of what is happening at a particular moment, "said Peter Sokolowski, editor of Merriam-Webster, in a press release.
This selection is made in the United States, where 196 million people are fully vaccinated against COVID 19. But, according to the company that publishes the dictionary, while the choice may be obvious, there is a more complicated story behind it.
"The search for the word vaccine increased 600% this year compared to the previous year and 1,048% compared to 2019. But this has to do with much more than medical history. Here are questions about individual freedoms, personal decisions, political affiliations, professional regulations, safety in schools, inequity in access to health, and so many other things at stake, "adds Sokolowski in the statement.
Searches for the word vaccine started to increase in 2020 but spiked in 2021, mainly around the summer. This time coincides with when states like New York and California decided that their employees, medical workers, and teachers get vaccinated on a mandatory basis.
When looking up the word vaccine in the dictionary, the definition that people encountered changed to incorporate the mRNA technology used in the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna.
Other words that competed and reached the final stretch this year are insurrection, which exploded after the attacks on the Capitol on January 6. In fact, in January 2021, the search for this word grew by 61,000 percent. But to be the word of the year, the term must have had a growth in the previous years.
The third in the race was infrastructure. With the ambitious presidential project of a package of more than 2 trillion dollars, the word began to be searched en masse starting in April of this year.
Popular culture also has an impact on the word search. For example, when Nomadland won the Oscar at the beginning of the year, searches for the phrase nomad increased significantly. Something similar happened with the term cicada, which increased by 1,442% in May after millions of copies of this insect flooded a good part of the country's northeast.
"Many words, like a vaccine, are in popular slang. The searches do not necessarily have to do with learning to write it but rather understanding the vaccines. It does not happen through ignorance, but on the contrary, through a desire to understand more about something we already know," Sokolowski explained.