2021 Words of the Year

What words defined 2021 according to dictionaries?

Every year, the world’s major dictionaries look at their data and announce their “word of the year” based on search trends. Traditionally it was a varied mix of duck milkshakes, metrosexuals and even emojis. But last year saw a common theme – with the likes of “pandemic”, “COVID”, “lockdown” and “iso” all featuring. So, what about year two of this new world? What were the words of 2021?

Merriam-Webster: VACCINE

America’s biggest dictionary chose “PANDEMIC” as its word last year, so as if answering a question, the word for this year was indeed “VACCINE”. “For many, the word symbolised a possible return to the lives we led before the pandemic,” the dictionary said. But it also went on to note that the word would become the centre of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequality, and so much more. We saw a similar thing here in Australia as we lagged behind the world for so long until mid-year lockdowns and greater availability saw us climb to one the world’s highest rates of vaccination.

Oxford English Dictionary: VAX

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Oxford returned to its decision-making ways in 2021, having opted not to choose one single word last year. And much like our first entry, it was all about the antidote to 2020’s problem. But here they went with the hipper, slim-fit version of the word: VAX. “A relatively rare word in our corpus until this year, by September it was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year,” said the dictionary. In particular, the double-X variety seems to have found favour, such as “getting vaxxed” or being “fully vaxxed”. Apparently, “no word better captures the atmosphere of the past year than vax.”

Collins Dictionary: NFT
While everyone was busy jabbing needles in their arms, Collins this year decided to highlight a different kind of thing going viral – NFTs. The “word” (which beat out “crypto” and “cheugy”) is of course an initialism that stands for Non-Fungible Token. And that probably still doesn’t make it any clearer. Essentially it’s a unique digital certificate that allows you to have ownership of an artwork or collectible. But these items aren’t your typical paintings or bronze sculptures. No, no. These could be digital art, an autograph, a special edition sneaker or even the first tweet ever sent on Twitter! Non-fungible means “one of a kind” so as long as it is unique, you can have the digital world stamp it as an NFT and ownership is authorised from then on.

NFTs first came to public attention in 2017, but went ballistic in March this year when a digital artwork by American artist Beeple, entitled The first 5000 Days sold for a whopping $69 million. That same month, a New York Times article about NFTs declared itself an NFT and was sold for half a million dollars. It’s a crazy crypto world. (And in case you’re wondering, “cheugy” describes something that is uncool.)

Dictionary.com: ALLYSHIP
Maybe after being all same-same with choosing “pandemic” last year, this site decided to be a little different. Personally, we didn’t see this word at ALL in 2021, so were curious to hear the rationale behind the decision. “The vastness of such a year could never be fully summarised with a single word,” they explained. “But there is one word that’s intertwined with so many of the things we’ve experienced in 2021: allyship.”

So, this is a noun and its definition is “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.” Some may see this as a rather woke choice (or maybe even cheugy), but there you go.

Cambridge Dictionary: PERSEVERANCE
This oft-misspelt word was named by this dictionary as their 2021 standard bearer. “Perseverance is defined as ‘continued effort to do or achieve something, even when this is difficult or takes a long time’,” the dictionary stated. “In 2021, people all over the world have had to show perseverance in the face of challenges and disruption to our lives from COVID-19 and other problems.”

Fair enough too. They bought stats along, with their data showing that the word was looked up over 243,000 times in 2021. Curiously, about 30k of those were in just one week during February, after NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars. A nice double whammy of meaning! So, it turned out that perseverance was needed on not one but two planets this year.

Australian National Dictionary Centre AND Macquarie Dictionary: STROLLOUT

Yes indeed, first the ANDC and then a few weeks later Macquarie (no doubt muttering and cursing at their thunder having been stolen) announced STROLLOUT as their Word of the Year. And in a year when “vax” and “vaccine” featured heavily, leave it to us Aussies to choose the world that described our approach to vaccines in the first half of 2021.

More “strollout” than “rollout” chortled people for months as Australia failed to get out of first gear with vaccinating the masses. The fact that the second half of the year was (for NSW and Victoria especially) actually the opposite of a stroll takes the shine off this word summing up the year a little, but clearly the damage was already done and who can deny pithy portmanteau wordplay with an Aussie twang? (That was rhetorical, but the clear answer is no one.) Other contenders this year for ANDC included “double-vaxxed”, “AUKUS” and “Fortress Australia”, while Macquarie’s lengthy shortlist contained “brain tickler”, “brick-bait”, “porch pirates” and “sober curious”. 

Sober curious perhaps, but after this year, many of us could probably use a drink. So grab your NFTs and climb aboard the allyship…destination 2022.

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