Merriam-Webster Announces 2021 Word of the Year With 601% Increase

Merriam-Webster announced its 2021 Word of the Year on Monday: "vaccine." The dictionary publisher proclaims an annual word of the year based on how often the word was searched online. In this case, the definition also looms large in the cultural zeitgeist.

"Vaccine lookups increased 600 percent, and the story is about much more than medicine," Merriam-Webster's editor at large said in a press release on Monday. "It was at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequality, and so much more. The biggest science event of the year quickly became the biggest political debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine. Few words can express so much about one moment in time."

Merriam-Webster offers one definition of "vaccine." It reads: "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), [or] (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, searches for the definition of the word "vaccine" spike on its website in January of 2021. This was even greater than the search traffic acquired in late 2020 when the vaccines were developed and distributed around the country. The searches reached a crescendo in February when the U.S. reached the lauded milestone of having more people vaccinated than infected with COVID-19.

The search traffic spiked yet again in August, around the time that some states began imposing coronavirus vaccine mandates. The availability of booster shots also pushed the term up the list, as well as the mandates by various employers – including President Joe Biden, head of the executive branch of the federal government.

The definition of the word "vaccine" was quoted or paraphrased in news articles throughout the year in reference to the history of inoculations, how the COVID-19 vaccines were different and the efficacy of each. Merriam-Webster notes that it actually had to revise its definition of the word this year thanks to the groundbreaking new mRNA technology developed to combat this pandemic.

The runner-up words of the year present an even more clear portrait of 2021 and how it will be remembered in history. They include "insurrection," "perseverance," "infrastructure," "nomad," "cisgender," "guardian," "meta" and "woke."

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The COVID-19 vaccines are still available for free throughout the U.S., and in many places, booster shots are now available as well. For all the information on these vaccines, visit the CDC's website.