NEW YORK (AP) – With an expanded definition to reflect the times, Merriam-Webster has declared an omnipresent truth as its 2021 word of the year: vaccine.
“This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021,” Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski told The Associated Press ahead of yesterday’s announcement.
“It really represents two different stories. One is the science story, which is this remarkable speed with which the vaccines were developed. But there’s also the debates regarding policy, politics and political affiliation. It’s one word that carries these two huge stories,” he said.
The selection follows ‘vax’ as word of the year from the folks who publish the Oxford English Dictionary. And it comes after Merriam-Webster chose ‘pandemic’ as tops in lookups last year on its online website.
“The pandemic was the gun going off and now we have the after effects,” Sokolowski said.
At Merriam-Webster, lookups for ‘vaccine’ increased 601 per cent over 2020, when the first United States (US) shot was administered in New York in December after quick development, and months of speculation and discussion over efficacy. The world’s first jab occurred earlier that month in the United Kingdom (UK).
Compared to 2019, when there was little urgency or chatter about vaccines, Merriam-Webster logged an increase of 1,048 per cent in lookups this year. Debates over inequitable distribution, vaccine mandates and boosters kept interest high, Sokolowski said. So did vaccine hesitancy and friction over vaccine passports.
The word ‘vaccine’ wasn’t birthed in a day, or due to a single pandemic. The first known use stretches back to 1882 but references pop up earlier related to fluid from cowpox pustules used in inoculations, Sokolowski said. It was borrowed from the New Latin ‘vaccina’, which goes back to Latin’s feminine ‘vaccinus’, meaning ‘of or from a cow’. The Latin for cow is ‘vacca’, a word that might be akin to the Sanskrit ‘vasa’, according to Merriam-Webster.