English words of the year 2021

Each year, lexicographers1 working for prominent publishing companies announce a word that, in their judgment, marked the previous year. Their choice usually tells us something about the state of affairs2 in the world we live in and the way language reflects it. In this post, we’ll look at the English words of the year 2021.

We’ll start with the least surprising one: the American publisher Merriam-Webster chose the noun vaccine, which we are all very familiar with. You can find its full definition with lots of example sentences on the Merriam-Webster website. Speaking of vaccines, did you know that the word is derived from the Latin word vacca, meaning a cow? Exploring its etymology, you can also learn a lot about vaccine development.

Oxford University Press, went along similar lines3, choosing the word vax, defined as “a colloquialism4 meaning either vaccine or vaccination as a noun and vaccinate as a verb.” On the OUP website you can find an interesting graph showing the enormous rise in the frequency of its use since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Very differently from the previous two publishers, Collins Dictionary opted for NFT, which is an abbreviation that stands for ‘non-fungible token’. No idea what that is? I’m no expert either, to put it mildly, but the definition says that NFT is “a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible.” Still don’t get it? You can find more about it in this article from the BBC.

Dictionary.com, one of the most popular online dictionaries, also chose something totally unrelated to the ongoing pandemic: allyship. This noun is derived from the noun ally, and has been 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.” Although it isn’t a new word, it has recently gained new prominence with the rise of new social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and the transgender rights movement.

My personal favourite is the word chosen by Cambridge Dictionary, which is perseverance. It is defined as “continued effort to do or achieve something, even when this is difficult or takes a long time,” and I feel it captures5 very well how most of us have felt for the past two years. However, its rise in frequency doesn’t seem to be directly connected with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic: online searches on the Cambridge Dictionary website spiked6 around the time when NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars back in February of this year.

Those were the words that marked the year 2021, as far as the English-speaking world is concerned. Do you agree with the lexicographers’ choices? Can you think of any other words that marked the year behind us? Do post your thoughts in the comments section!


VOCABULARY NOTES FOR EFL / ESL STUDENTS

1 a lexicographer: a person who compiles dictionaries

2 state of affairs = situation, a set of circumstances

3 to go along similar lines: to do something in a similar way

4 a colloquialism: an informal word or phrase

5 to capture: here it means to record something accurately

6 to spike: here it means to increase sharply

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