Word Matters Podcast

The 2021 Word of the Year

Word Matters, Episode 68

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The word 'vaccine' was about much more than just medicine this year. Here's what we looked at to make it our 2021 Word of the Year.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: Merriam-Webster's 2021 Word of The Year. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster's editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Merriam-Webster has declared a word of the year every year, since 2003. We announced our 18th such word in late November, and Peter and I are going to tell you all about it. On Monday, November 29th, Merriam-Webster announced its word of the year, peter. What is our word of the year for 2021?

Peter Sokolowski: That's right. Merriam-Webster's word of the year 2021 is vaccine. Not surprising to you and me.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Neither of us was surprised, but explain to everybody why we were not surprised. What is it that determines what the word of the year will be?

Peter Sokolowski: We look at the search results, the data of the website at at merriam-webster.com. In other words, the actual online dictionary gets a lot of look ups. And one of the most interesting things I think of any given day is to see which words are being looked up. Now, this would've been impossible before the internet, obviously. And in fact, dictionary makers for 400 years in English could never really know which words people were looking up in their books because there were print books that went out into the world. And I think a lot of people assumed things, but they could never know that the hour or the day or the week that they spent on a given definition would ever be consulted or looked at. When we went online in 1996, we saw initially something that didn't surprise us. I say us, I was very junior at the time, but the website was online and the list of words looked kind of like a vocabulary quiz. Terms that were kind of abstract. A word like integrity, the word paradigm, the word pragmatic, the word ubiquitous, the word democracy.

Emily Brewster: But also affect and effect.

Peter Sokolowski: And affect and effect.

Emily Brewster: Affect and effect.

Peter Sokolowski: Affect and effect, exactly. So in other words, vocabulary terms, abstract terms and also difficulties of the English language that are just peculiar to English. But then something happened, this is the short version of the story, but when Princess Diana died in 1997, we noticed something for the first time, which was the sudden shift. And the top lookups of that day reflected the news of the day. The word princess itself was one of the looked up words, but the word paparazzi, which was the immediate cause of the accident that led to her death, it's a word that was unfamiliar to some people and it was certainly looked up, I'm guessing, in every newsroom in America on that day. So what we saw was oh, this is a measure of the public's curiosity at a given moment in real time. And then we started our annual word of the year announcement a few years later. And for the most part, what we've decided is the best way to give the truthful information about how we use the dictionary is to explain, at the end of the year, which words were the most looked up words for that year. And so we have the raw tonnage, the number of times a given word is looked up and then we have something else which is really interesting, which is our kind of year over year comparison because it turns out that some of those abstract vocabulary words are the words that people look up in the dictionary every day, because in the final analysis, the dictionary is not a measure of the news. It's a measure of the language. Sometimes the language in a given moment reflects the news, it can also reflect the Super Bowl or the Oscars or many different events that trigger spikes in curiosity of a given word. But needless to say, in recent years, politics and the pandemic have been among the top, most looked up subjects of vocabulary.

Emily Brewster: That's right. In 2020, the word of the year was pandemic itself.

Peter Sokolowski: And it had to be.

Emily Brewster: Because people were looking up the word pandemic in great numbers, because this was our new reality. So with vaccine, was vaccine the most-looked-up word at merriam-webster.com this year?

Peter Sokolowski: It was close. Not necessarily in the raw numbers. Only because all day, every day we get words like integrity and ubiquitous and paradigm and conundrum, affect and effect. In terms of vocabulary words, that had to do with the news, that had to do with what's going on around us today. That are not what we might call evergreen words of English vocabulary, sources of curiosity, reasons you go to the dictionary for language or linguistic reasons or lexical reasons alone. This is a word that had to do with the urgent current news of the pandemic.

Emily Brewster: We know that a word is significant for a particular year because we compare it to look up some previous years. So vaccine was looked up in huge numbers on our website at merriam-webster.com and then also in comparison to 2020, but even more so to 2019.

Peter Sokolowski: The word pandemic had a big spike in March of 2020, but many people were looking it up already in February because the disease was known and the news was coming out and there was an interest in this subject. And then it was upon us and it changed our lives. It's kind of similar with vaccine because it wasn't very long into the pandemic that people were discussing, "How do we get out of it? What are the scientific approaches? What are the possible breakthroughs? What happened in the past?" And the word vaccine came up and was much discussed. And indeed of course the vaccine was funded research developed and implemented during 2020. The first jab in an arm I believe was in New York City in December of 2020. So this was in the news. Vaccine had a ramp up during the end of 2020, which means it started 2021 at a much higher level than it started 2020. So looking at 2019, a year in which pandemic was not the overwhelming subject of curiosity, is really interesting and we saw a difference in look ups of 1048% between 2019 and 2021.

Emily Brewster: I think it's really interesting that in 2020, we had the word of the year and the story of the year was the pandemic. And in 2021, the word of the year and the story of the year is vaccine and kind of the pathway out of the pandemic. It's a very interesting story.

Peter Sokolowski: There's an absolute narrative to these two words next to each other.

Emily Brewster: There is.

Peter Sokolowski: And it may be, going to the future, another word that kind of overwhelmingly describes the atmosphere of 2022.

Emily Brewster: I'm hoping that 2022 is going to be something like bliss or normalcy or-

Peter Sokolowski: Sunflower, hummingbird.

Emily Brewster: Community, but there were some really relevant occurrences in the news that then caused additional spikes in look ups of vaccine.

Peter Sokolowski: And there's a mundane thing too, which is something that I think you and I both do, which is on our sort of internal data, I happened to notice that the word vaccine was in the top 20 or 30 words every single day. I wasn't always looking for it. And then I saw, "Hey, I just saw that up there yesterday. It was at 18 yesterday, it's at 22 today." And I just thought any word from the almost 500,000 words that are in bold faced type in our dictionary, that is to say a word that you can look up in the dictionary and get a successful result. I felt like in that very long tail hanging out around at the 20-word mark, every day for 300 days, is going to add up to something. And so I had a sense even back in the spring that this word is not going away. This subject keeps coming back. And that's what you're talking about.

Emily Brewster: Peter, I remember you saying to me months ago, "I never think about the word of the year until maybe September, October. I start wondering like, "Oh, I wonder what the word of the year is going to be?" But I think it was probably as early as June or July-

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: ... that you said, "You know what? The word of the year is going to be vaccine."

Peter Sokolowski: It was in the summer for sure. Because I just realized whether it's the headline, whether that's the lead story anymore, it's still on our minds, but there's something else which is really fascinating. This word, as we mentioned, started high in January. Started at a high level in raw numbers, but then it went higher. And not so much in the way that some words do. And we'll talk about other words that have what we call spikes that just have a sudden interest that is usually, fairly short. In this case, it was started high and it kind of stayed flat at that high level, which is important. But then around the end of August, it pumped to another gear, it went higher again. And I wouldn't call that a spike so much as a slope, it went up and then it stayed up.

Emily Brewster: Mm-hm.

Peter Sokolowski: And what's interesting to me is that the end of the summer, that was a time at which there had been eight months of public service announcements to, "Get your shots, get your first jab, get your second jab." And many, many people would post photographs of themselves on social media getting their first shot. It was in the news or people encouraging their friends and family. But what happened at the end of the summer, was a couple of interesting things that have less to do with the vaccine as medicine and more to do with the vaccine as what I will call policy. In other words, in New York and California, there were vaccine mandates for healthcare workers that were put in place. A federal mandate was now for nursing home staff, but then other things in the news, the FDA approved Pfizer's vaccine that was a kind of provisional approval up to that point. There was a new story when 70% of Americans had received at least a single dose. And then there was this other double story, which was the Delta variant that was new. And the idea that a booster shot might be necessary. So all of these things happened at the end of the summer into the fall. And again, the idea of a vaccine as medicine, as a possible way to prevent serious disease was no longer the real reason we were discussing and using this word. It was now mandates and policy.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back in a minute with more on the significance of the word vaccine in 2021. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available @-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And from more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: In the second half of our special Word of the Year episode, we dig deeper into the story of the word vaccine in 2021, including why our definition for it had to be revised. The story of vaccine is really an international story, of course. And when there were discussions about booster shots, there was also a lot of conversation about vaccine inequity and about how vaccines are not available still. We're talking about getting booster shots in wealthy countries, and then there are many other parts of the world, especially Africa-

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, indeed.

Emily Brewster: ... where nobody has gotten a single shot.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, indeed. And in fact, I heard a term this week and it was vaccine apartheid. And it refers to this exact phenomenon that we're talking about third shots for the developed world. And this was in Southern Africa where we're now concerned about the Omicron virus, where people haven't even had a single shot. But there's something else that's international about this, which is the argument, the debate. It's happening, I think everywhere. But certainly the countries that I follow news feeds from, United States and Britain and France, but certainly Switzerland and Germany. There are arguments everywhere about things like mandates, travel restrictions. Do you need to be vaccinated to eat in a restaurant or to go to a concert? These are the kinds of, of conversations we're all having. I say conversations. Sometimes they're conversations. Sometimes they're arguments. Sometimes they're political debates that are happening at school committee meetings on the local level or at Senate committee hearings at the federal level. And so this has become a cultural phenomenon and vaccine has become so much more than a word and so much more than medicine. It's this signifier of sometimes what side you're on. It also has something to do with very basic things. Kids who are too young to have gotten vaccinated, they're going to schools. And so there are a whole set of problems that have to do with schools. And schools that are shut down here and there. And so anyway, this clearly has become one word that radiates different stories from different fields. On the one hand, maybe some people would call it a medical miracle or a technological advance. And we'll talk about that too, which has to do with the definition itself. But then also the use of the word as what we call an attributive noun, vaccine mandates, vaccine apartheid, vaccine restrictions or vaccine orders. Using vaccine as part of policy. And this is unusual that one word can be at the center of all of this. And also that all of this is the center of all of our lives at the moment.

Emily Brewster: Right, right. But we should talk about from a lexicographical perspective, vaccine was significant because our definition had to be revised in the midst of all this conversation about vaccine.

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly.

Emily Brewster: So our definition formerly read until I think it was until May, our definition read, "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."

Peter Sokolowski: Mm-hm.

Emily Brewster: Now, that definition reflected the kind of vaccines that were formerly available. But the COVID vaccines that were produced by these companies for this particular disease are very significantly different and so-

Peter Sokolowski: They work in a different way.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: So here is the new definition. "A preparation that administered as by injection to stimulate the body's immune response against a specific infectious agent or disease such as A, an antigen preparation of a typically inactivated or attenuated, see attenuated sense too, pathogenic agent, such as a bacterium or virus or one of its components or products, such as a protein or toxin." Now, that is the kind of vaccine that historically has been available. And then sense 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."

Peter Sokolowski: Now, it's important to mention that sense A that you just read is kind of a rewording of what had already been our definition.

Emily Brewster: Right. It gets into more detail and it goes a little deeper.

Peter Sokolowski: But B is entirely new.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: So sense 1B added in May of 2021 was new. And partly we are not a scientific body. We're also not a legal body. We are the dictionary. And so this comes from the fact that so much discussion about the new vaccines and the new technology, which wasn't itself new in 2020, but the mRNA or the messenger RNA kind of vaccine, which had been under development for diseases like SARS. Many of us remember 2009, Ebola, other recent outbreaks that could have turned into pandemics, or that were even smaller pandemics in certain regions. This was that kind of technology, but it was so specialized. It actually does expose how the dictionary works, which is that this is the kind of technology discussed in medical journals, in scientific journals. And we are aware of that, but until that kind of language comes into the more broad popular journalism covered in The New York Times, covered in the Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and many other places. That kind of language is noted by us. That's when we have to put it into the dictionaries, it's no longer the scientific jargon of specialists. It's something that editors of more broadly read publications expect their readers to understand.

Emily Brewster: The definition of vaccine, it does not reflect shifts in usage, but it has to reflect shifts in technology.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, but also shift in just frequency.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: In other words, that if this was still limited to only scientific journals, it might not have got in this release in May of 2021.

Emily Brewster: Interesting.

Peter Sokolowski: Even a stipulative definition such as this one, if it was just a rarefied use, it might not have made it. However, it was not a rarefied use. It was an incredibly important use that was appearing in journalism of all kinds, local to international and so-

Emily Brewster: That's right. So lexicographers are not tracking every single development in-

Peter Sokolowski: Because we can't.

Emily Brewster: ... all of scientific technology. But when a new scientific technology becomes established and more widely used, then our definition has to be revised to reflect that new use.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. And what's interesting too, is that because that shift happened in May, it was a regularly scheduled revision in which hundreds of words and entries were revised. We do this three or four times a year. And our science definers worked hard on the definitions of COVID-19 itself and other related words, such as coronavirus, which was in the dictionary, but needed more detail and could get a lot more substance because of this pandemic. Those were added in 2020. And now, this new definition, with another reference within it to immune response, which we define as "a bodily response to an antigen that occurs when lymphocytes identify the antigenic molecule as foreign and induce the formation of antibodies and lymphocytes capable of reacting with it and rendering it harmless." What I love about this is it explains how this works. In other words, that word immunity, which some people noticed that it was swapped for immune response in this new definition seemed to be arguing for its restoration that the term immunity meant something like a wall or a suit of armor, or the rubber gloves you wear to protect your hands here when gardening.

Emily Brewster: Absolute protection.

Peter Sokolowski: A total protection, which is a never what it actually was. As a metaphor, it doesn't work. And so we stopped with the metaphor of protection and we replaced it with this term immune response, which is itself defined within our dictionary. So my feeling is what's great about this change is that it gives us a lot more detail about how vaccines work.

Emily Brewster: Before we leave vaccine entirely, I just want to touch on the etymology of the word vaccine-

Peter Sokolowski: That is the best part.

Emily Brewster: ... because it's a very interesting etymology.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a fun one, yeah.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. The word vaccine comes from the Latin word for "cow."

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: Vacca, V-A-C-C-A.

Peter Sokolowski: If you know romance languages like French it's vaccin. It comes directly from that same word. So it's connected to that.

Emily Brewster: And is that because vaccines are from cows?

Peter Sokolowski: Sort of. I think that's an interesting point. First of all, vaccine is a word that is essentially Latin-based. And yet this was not a word that was used in ancient Rome. It wasn't used by people who used Latin as their everyday language. It's part of what we would call New Latin or the scientific language of the post-Renaissance Europe, especially in the 18th and 19th century. New diseases and new medicines were often given Latin names. And that's true here.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And the cow significance is that the first vaccine or the first thing that was called a vaccine was a vaccine for smallpox.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: And it was developed using a substance, it's very disgusting, really, from the pustules of cowpox.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: And those two are closely related enough that you can stimulate an immune response to smallpox by injecting someone with this substance from cowpox.

Peter Sokolowski: And this all came about because it was noticed that people on dairy farms were apparently inoculated against smallpox. They didn't get it in the numbers that other members of the population did.

Emily Brewster: But there was a slave who had come from Africa and he had been vaccinated with the smallpox substance. And he also contributed to that understanding of this function.

Peter Sokolowski: Exposure to the one gave you inoculation to the other.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And even back then, people were afraid of it-

Peter Sokolowski: Arguments.

Emily Brewster: ... and uneasy about it, and didn't like it, but it saved lives.

Peter Sokolowski: Famously Cotton Mather, one of the English colonists in the North Shore region of Massachusetts, he was a proponent of vaccination and he got all kinds of threats. And there were huge arguments in a pre-scientific age, pre-modern age, this must have seemed quite extraordinary. And of course pre-modern medicine was often made up of natural herbs and elements from nature that might have also included animal excretions of different kinds in their recipes. So this was one of those. It's kind of amazing. And so the term was so specific to cowpox and smallpox, and yet now it's more broad, used for this kind of inoculation. And by the way, the term itself vaccine would not have been used by Cotton Mather in the 1600s. They would've said inoculation. Vaccine is a term we date to the late 1800s, in fact, in this use. So it's a fairly modern scientific use of an ancient Latin root in English.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And it is our 2021 Word of The Year. On our next episode, we'll explore more of the words of 2021. Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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