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Merriam-Webster Announces 2021 Word of the Year: Vaccine


Merriam-Webster word of the year. | Image from Merriam-Webster

Merriam-Webster has released its list of words that defined 2021. “Vaccine” has been declared the Word of the Year for 2021.

In previous versions of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “vaccine” was defined as “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.”

Now the definition has been altered due to the introduction of a new vaccine using messenger RNA or mRNA.

The new definition of “vaccine” is “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) 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).”

According to Merriam-Webster lookups, the word vaccine increased 601 percent from 2019 to 2020. Comparing lookups from 2019, when COVID became a daily part of our lives until 2021, interest in the word jumped 1048 percent.

“Vaccine” became part of political discussions and a way to return to normal life for some people. In August of 2021, after the FDA approved emergency use of the COVID vaccine, lookups of the word jumped 535 percent.

Before Merriam-Webster announced “vaccine” as 2021’s Word of the Year, editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski told The Associated Press, “This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021.”

The word vaccine comes from the Latin word “vacca,” which means cow, and refers to the use of cowpox as a way to combat smallpox in humans. It was first used in the 1880s, and now, over one hundred and forty years later, the word vaccine is at the center of discussion all around the world.

Merriam-Webster determines words of the year by calculating how many lookups a word has while paying attention to any spikes it receives. Year-to-year data is also considered.

Other 2021 Word of the Year runner-ups in ascending order included insurrection, perseverance, woke, nomad, infrastructure, cicada, murraya, cisgender, guardian, and meta. Merriam-Webster has been awarding a word of the year since 2008.

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