Word Matters Podcast

2021: The Year in Words

Word Matters, Episode 69

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Last week we told you about our Word of the Year. This week, we'll get into the rest of the words that made up 2021.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, more words of 2021. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

When Merriam-Webster announces its Word of the Year we also identify other words of significance from that year. From politics to sports to the movies, Peter and I are going to explain how each one came to be on this exclusive list. The 2021 Word of the Year for Merriam-Webster is vaccine, but every year we also identify, based on lookups at merriam-webster.com, other words of significance. Sometimes those words show the same kind of repeated spikes in lookups, or they have a really prolonged interest throughout the year that makes them also contenders for that Word of the Year position. And then others just have really remarkable numbers of lookups at very particular times.

One of the runners up though for the Word of the Year was a very interesting word that also was looked up a great deal throughout the year, that word is...

Peter Sokolowski: Insurrection.

Emily Brewster: Yes. Starting January 6th.

Peter Sokolowski: And the fact is, it's one of those things that, as soon as you hear the word, it rings true. Oh, yes, this was one of the major stories of the year. And indeed, our data shows something remarkable, which is that on January 7th, the spike was an amazing 61000% over the same period of the year before. And so that's what we do in these lists, is compare the interest in the word that is sudden and news-driven to a period when it was not in the news, and that's an amazing figure, but it shows how striking that news event was.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And of course we're talking about the January 6th, began as a protest, became a riot, and then was widely called insurrection, including by the military Joint Chiefs. There was a CNN headline on January 13th that said, "Military Joint Chiefs Condemn Sedition and Insurrection at the US capital." Those kinds of headlines that would then drive people to look up the word.

Peter Sokolowski: Senators, members of Congress, and, of course, news reporters were using this term. By the way, other words that spiked that day were coup d'etat and riot, so this is a word, among others, that drew so much attention that day. But then of course, throughout the year, because subsequently, of course, there have been discussions, they have been reported, there have been arrests, there have been indictments, there have been sentencing. So this is a story that is still with us and, needless to say, huge political story. It makes me think of one thing, with that figure of 61,000%, that that event, for all of us was, in its way, as unprecedented as the pandemic had been. And I remember everyone complaining about that word unprecedented in the spring of 2020. "We're tired of this word. We're tired of hearing it." Well, we'd never seen this, an attack on the capital building itself. So what's interesting to me is it also proves the relevance of the dictionary. People go to the dictionary with a technical legal term like this, insurrection, which comes from the same route as surge, it's that violent sudden action, and the word insurgent is related to this as well. And so the words we use matter, of course, and this is one of the words that really did matter in 2021.

Emily Brewster: Yes, we define insurrection as an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government. Part of the story of insurrection was these shocking events. People wanted to know if they did indeed qualify as insurrection. That was part of the question.

Peter Sokolowski: Something we've noticed over the years, that a word that is sort of familiar to most adults, let's say, but is suddenly used in a context that seems extremely specific, and that specificity can be legal, or medical, or technical, and this is one of those cases. If you used the word insurrection in a sentence, most people wouldn't be sent to the dictionary. However, when you use it in this context, it sent many people to the dictionary.

Emily Brewster: Yes. Another word that's in that same category in both ways, in that it was looked up over the entire course of the year and is also a word that people have, certainly, a passing familiarity with, is the word infrastructure. But again, infrastructure was looked up a great deal, because just what is infrastructure was a big part of the conversation.

Peter Sokolowski: It was about the definition, wasn't it?

Emily Brewster: Yes. What qualifies as infrastructure? Yes. We define infrastructure as, three senses listed. The system of public works of a country, state, or region, also the resources, such as personnel, buildings, or equipment required for an activity. Two, the underlying foundation or basic framework as of a system or organization. And three, the permanent installations required for military purposes.

Peter Sokolowski: That last definition is actually kind of where it all began, at least in English, because this is one of those words that has Latin roots. So infrastructure means literally underneath or below the structure, so it does refer to a foundation or a sub-structure of some kind. And we have other words, like infrared, that has that same kind of prefix. But this is a term that entered English after World War II, and what happened at that time is a lot of Europe was, of course, devastated, especially the cities that had been bombed, and so they were being rebuilt and they were being rebuilt with some new ideas about how big airports should be, how big highways should be, and so basically it was determined, largely by the American victors who are rebuilding much of France and Germany, especially also Belgium and Poland and other areas, if this flattened area, since this is poor city has been destroyed, well, we're going to rebuild the city, but we're going to add an airport, we're going to add a highway exit, we're going to add a highway, which was kind of a new idea at that time also. So the term infrastructure was used by our military and foreign policy to refer to this building of roads and bridges and airports, basically, in Europe. And that was brought back in the early 1950s. What's interesting is I actually have some of our citations of this word around that time, 1951 and 52. What's interesting is that there were even cases where the Secretary of State of the United States would apologize for using this jargony word, he's like, "Infrastructure, well, that's all the military people are saying this word, so I'm going to use it also," but then they would explain it. So it really was a new idea in the early 50s. And by the way, that was right at the same moment that the interstate highway system in the United States, and basically any red brick school any of us attended, were built all during that decade, and this was the word that was the new word for this type of building.

Emily Brewster: What we learned in 2021 is that some portion of the populace continues to think that the word is limited to those traditional meanings. There were spikes in lookups for the word 677% on April 7th, following President Biden's announcement of his 2.3 trillion plan, and then other spikes came in June with the announcement of a bipartisan agreement about the legislation, and then in November, when former President Trump made disparaging comments about Republican legislators who voted for the bill. Over the entire year, the conversation about infrastructure really was attention with that World War II era meaning of the word, and then the modern meaning of the word. That modern meaning of the word that includes personnel, equipment, broadband. Those newer uses of the word are not new to this time, but they were new to a lot of people in 2021.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. And this makes me think of one thing about this word, but also about this category of word, which is that the figurative uses, like information infrastructure, or social infrastructure, these kinds of more figurative uses that refer to things like personnel or medical care or broadband internet in rural areas, it reminds me that construction terms that are usually concrete words, are often used as metaphors, and that's because we build things and then we build ideas upon those things. So we have terms like solid as a rock, that weighs a to, nerves of steel, heart of stone, stiff as a board, bang your head against the wall. In other words, all of these are just metaphors. And my point is that that roads and bridges infrastructure terminology lends itself so quickly and easily to other means of support.

Emily Brewster: Right. I don't think of these newer uses of infrastructure referring to personnel or referring to broadband, they're not figurative in the same way that solid as a rock is. I think also this is a case in which the jargon has continued to be used in these certain contexts that the general public does not encounter. Infrastructure was developing and applying to many more things than people realized until this legislation was presented, and people said, wait a minute, no, it's not. But people who had written it were very familiar with it being used in this way. So it was unremarkable to people who have been using this word consistently for all these years.

Peter Sokolowski: That's really an important point. And that shows you how important language is. That becomes just this kind of political argument that we don't want to pay too much, but roads and bridges do require maintenance, and so it's interesting to me that this is the kind of word that lends itself easily to figurative use, so that opens a door. That can also mean that if you're fashioning some kind of writing, you might want to be extremely specific about the terminology you use for this very reason, because some people may not be as familiar with these different uses, and especially if it's easily expanded or contracted.

Emily Brewster: Right. The next word on our list is a word that was looked up in great, great numbers in July, it has likely never been looked up even 1/10th, as much as it was looked up in July of 2021, and will likely never be looked up so much again. And that is the word, it's pronounced Murraya.

Peter Sokolowski: Murraya, yeah.

Emily Brewster: Murraya. But it is not the name. It's not, how do you solve a problem like Murraya? It is spelled M-U-R-R-A-Y-A. Peter, what is capital M-U-R-R-A-Y-A?

Peter Sokolowski: Capital M. This is the only word on our list I had never heard before, and it shows the great richness of our unabridged dictionary. This word means a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imprecated petals.

Emily Brewster: I love the word imprecated.

Peter Sokolowski: Imprecated. That's a great word. It has another note, it says see orange jessamine. And so this is a kind of plant. It is spelled with a capital M because this is an [epanem 00:10:15], which is to say it is named after the botanist, the scientist, who named it, or discovered it, 18th century Swedish botanist with an English sounding name, and this was the winning word of the National Spelling Bee this year, which is really terrific. Also this is the first bee final that I have not attended in a dozen years or more, and the winner was Zaila Avant-garde. She's also, by the way, a Guinness record holder for many basketball feats that blow your mind

Emily Brewster: A brilliant and talented girl.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. And what was interesting is that I wasn't there in person this year. It was, as you might guess, a reduced finals, and normally there's more than 2000 people in the room at the end. But I watched it with the rest of America on TV, and one thing that I remember from all of the bees is that when a speller asks a very specific etymological question that is also completely correct, it's a good clue that that speller knows exactly what's coming next. Once she asked, can this be a proper name or from a proper name, and is this the proper name of a famous comedian, referring apparently to Bill Murray, and the answer was yes, and then she went on to spell the word correctly. But that kind of question, which I think she knew the answer to, but just asking the question showed how much she had studied the etymology, the vocabulary, the word list, and also that she was pretty confident she knew that this was the correct spelling.

Emily Brewster: That's right. She just wanted a tiny bit of confirmation that she was on the right track. But Murraya is not named for Bill Murray. It was named for Johan A. Murray, an 18th century Swedish botanist.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: But Zaila got a surprise congratulations from Bill Murray on Jimmy Kimmel Live, which I think is just absolutely fantastic.

Peter Sokolowski: How great. That's one of the great stories of the year. And certainly it is gratifying that people pay attention to the spelling bee and we can read that attention in our dictionary data.

Emily Brewster: Yes. It's a happy story. The next word we have is also a happy story. This word shot to the top of our lookups in February, up 789%. The word is...

Peter Sokolowski: Perseverance. And this was the name of NASA's Mars Rover. And it's also a great word. When we first saw that this word was high in the lookups, we thought, well, this has been a tough time for all of us and many people have exhibited a kind of perseverance of one kind or another in many different ways, personal, professional, parenting. In this case really is isolated in its interest to this one event, and the term itself, the name, was chosen by a special contest.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Zaila Avant-garde is a child, and perseverance got into our list also because of another child, another student, Alexander Mather, a seventh grader, submitted perseverance as a name to NASA's Name The Rover Essay Contest, and this name was chosen out of 28,000 entries from kindergarten through 12th grade students from every US state and territory. Certainly you can understand why NASA would choose this name. The Perseverance Rover traveled almost 300 million miles in a period of more than seven months to reach its destination. We define the word perseverance as continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition. The action, or condition, or an instance of persevering, steadfastness. From the Latin word [foreign language 00:13:24], means to persist in a course of action or an attitude in spite of opposition. Keep on.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a word that essentially retained its Latin meaning in English, as many of those ancient verbs did. A great word that gives just a little hope.

Emily Brewster: That's right. A little bleaker is the next one, but still not related to any terrible news, and that is the word nomad. I said a moment ago, nomad kind of bleak, I didn't mean that the word nomad is bleak, the word nomad can refer specifically to a member of a people who have no fixed residence, but who move from place to place, usually seasonally and within a well defined territory. Or it refers broadly to someone who roams about. I just know that the movie Nomadland was bleak, but the movie won three of this year's Oscar Awards, including best picture, best actress in a leading role, and best directing.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, indeed. We often do see this, that Hollywood can trigger lookups and the titles of certain movies, Revenant comes to mind, there was an unusual word, an award-winning film. Another film that got huge amount of lookups a number of years ago was the word Inception, and that was also from the title of a film. People who follow us on Twitter, for example, might think that the words that are looked up are only political words and that's not true at all, entertainment and sports also send people to the dictionary, for sure.

Emily Brewster: As do trillions of insects making their way to the surface of the earth once every 17 years.

Peter Sokolowski: This was the year of the cicada. And this is a word that, first of all, spelling is a little tricky, but also its definition and this strange pattern it has of every 17 years showing up.

Emily Brewster: Also pronunciation. You say cicada, I say cicada.

Peter Sokolowski: There we go.

Emily Brewster: Our first pronunciation is cicada, cicada is second, and cicada is another, and none of them is marked in any way as being less preferred, but the first one is indeed cicada. We define cicada as any of a family, I'm going to spell it, C-I-C-D-I-D-A-E, of homopterous insects, which have a stout body wide blunt head and large transparent wings and the males of which produce a loud buzzing noise, usually by stridulation. If you lived in the region where these cicadas were emerging over much of the spring and summer, it was trillions of them. The larva had been underground for 17 years. There are 17 year and, I believe, also 13 year cicadas. So it's big news when these insects all rise to the surface and start making their noises.

Peter Sokolowski: Homopterous means an insect that has sucking mouth parts. That's what that means.

Emily Brewster: I feel more comfortable with the word homopterous. Another one, this one is sports related.

Peter Sokolowski: There have been several team named changes, and one was the Cleveland baseball team, which is now called The Guardians. We saw huge spike in the word Guardian. Again, a fairly familiar word, but made the news and it was the subject of the day, and it is interesting to see that some of these sports teams have been changing. Last year, we had Kraken, which was the new name of a hockey team in the Pacific Northwest.

Emily Brewster: That's right. The former name of Cleveland's American League Baseball Team was Indians.

Peter Sokolowski: The Indians.

Emily Brewster: It had been much criticized for a very long time, so they finally chose the name Guardians, and that was in July. Lookups for the word guardian spiked 3142%. I suspect that people went to look the word up in part because they wanted to know if maybe there was more to the word than they had initially thought. Is there something that makes it particularly apt for a baseball team? But the relevant meaning of guardian is one that guards. A custodian. In fact, the real relationship between the city and its choice in this baseball team had to do with a landmark in the city of Cleveland, and that is Cleveland's Hope Memorial Bridge. There are guardians of traffic, eight of these gigantic statues, that are at either end of this Hope Memorial Bridge. They're 43 feet tall, they have winged helmets like Hermes or Mercury, the God of travel, among other things. So this is why the team chose the name Guardians, because of the significance of the guardians of traffic, these statues.

Peter Sokolowski: So it was absolutely local and specific to that community, and that's a great reason to choose that name.

Emily Brewster: I wonder how many of the people who looked up guardian@merriam-webster.com don't live in Cleveland? Everybody in Cleveland is probably like, "Oh yeah, it's the traffic people," but the rest of us were scratching our heads. You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back with some more of the words of 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 at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at npm.org.

Emily Brewster: In the second half of our episode on 2021's VIP words, we discussed some younger words that made the cut.

Peter Sokolowski: Another term that was looked up was meta. In October it was announced by Facebook that the parent company of Facebook would be rebranded as Meta, M-E-T-A, and we saw a lookup jump of almost 11000%, because it's kind of a recent word. It feels fresh.

Emily Brewster: I would assume that I haven't looked at the other data, but I think meta is frequently a bit high, I would suspect. Historically was only a prefix, it was used in terms like metaphysics and a meta language. Meta language is the language that's used to talk about a language. But there is a new adjectival use, it's really relatively young. I think it dates maybe to the 90s.

Peter Sokolowski: If I'm not mistaken, you contributed to the definition of this word.

Emily Brewster: I did. It was a hard one. I was paying attention to this use of the word meta for a long time before it seemed to have really settled. It took me a while to narrow it down to just two definitions. They are, showing or suggesting an explicit awareness of itself or oneself as a member of its category, cleverly self-referential. And then also, concerning or providing information about members of its own category. So those uses of meta, and we date the adjective meta only to 1988, so very new as these things go, but only newly prominent. But that is not actually why the company formerly known as Facebook changed its name to Meta, I don't think. Zuckerberg, the head of Meta, said explicitly that they wanted to focus the company on something called the metaverse. In most cases, this is a word that is really not fully settled out, but it generally refers to the concept of a highly immersive virtual world where people can do all the things that people want to do together in the real world, but in a virtual world.

Peter Sokolowski: Virtual reality is something that we hear more and more about. The term apparently comes from a Neal Stephenson novel called Snow Crash from the early 1990s.

Emily Brewster: That's right. 1992. And he did coin that word.

Peter Sokolowski: The name meta is connecting more to metaverse than to this sort of self-referential idea, which is the way that it's used in an absolute way or an independent way.

Emily Brewster: Yes. But Stephenson's coinage definitely works with that sense of meta that was emerging at the time that he coined the word metaverse.

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting. It makes me think in critical theory terms of the French term [foreign language 00:21:04], which really means image within an image, or a story within a story. I always used to think of the Land O'Lakes box, of person holding another box of Land O'Lakes butter, which depicts another person holding a box of Land O'Lakes butter. So essentially, plausibly, infinite. Then that's the use of the term [foreign language 00:21:20], sort of self-referential, an image of itself.

Emily Brewster: Peter that's very, very meta.

Peter Sokolowski: There's one more word.

Emily Brewster: We've got two more words, actually.

Peter Sokolowski: Two more words.

Emily Brewster: We can talk about them as kind of a pair because lookups for these words were really driven by the same kind of energy. The first word is cisgender. We saw dramatic spikes in lookups twice in 2021, the first time was in May, lookups increased by almost 6000% following the release of a CIA recruitment video in which a CIA member used the word to describe herself. And then it was also looked up a lot in October, after a student's op-ed in a college newspaper used the word. In both cases people were looking up the word cisgender at the same time that there was strong condemnation from those on the political right about the use of the word. We define the word cisgender as, of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth. The term is contrasted with transgender and it only dates to the mid 1990s. And for many people it's still an unfamiliar word.

Peter Sokolowski: And that prefix, C-I-S.

Emily Brewster: It is not widely used. It is a technical science prefix. It really has very little application. But it means on the same side as.

Peter Sokolowski: So that's why it's used in other scientific contexts, like chemistry and genetics. It's simply true that in terms of identity, whether it's gender identity, racial identity, ethnic identity, are a source of enormous interest and movement in language today, not just in English, but of course all over.

Emily Brewster: It's a very productive segment of the language, for sure.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: And then also our last word is the word woke, which saw dramatic increases several times in 2020. Really a bunch of times, but it was especially during the election in November that we saw the most dramatic increases. It was used in a lot of election coverage. The use of woke certain was drawing interest is not the past tense of wake, that is not the one that people are interested in. Instead, interested in this newer use that originated in African American vernacular English. It's defined in our dictionary as, aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially issues of racial and social justice. This is a use that is identified as slang. We're certain it goes back further than our current print evidence. I think our current print evidence of it goes back to the 70s or 80s, but it may have been used in audio recordings from before then. This is a use that became much more widely known, especially by people who are not native speakers of African American vernacular English, in 2014 after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. So the word rose in prominence, then became much more widely used, and in 2021 it had become a word that was lobbed at anybody who raised concern about issues having to do with racial and social justice.

Peter Sokolowski: It's become almost a label, like the term political correctness itself, which has become, instead of being understood for what it originally meant, is a label for those who are against the status quo, and it's become almost an epithet. That use of it is so fresh that it's not even in our a dictionary yet, because it's happened rather quickly.

Emily Brewster: This new semantic shift in it is not really fully settled out yet.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. It's hard to define a word when it's moving. You can't-

Emily Brewster: It's not ready to be defined yet. But in some ways, the meaning hasn't changed that much, it's just how it is targeted. It's still means aware of and attentive to important facts and issues. The idea is that there's something wrong with being aware of and attuned to these things.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. And this term, wokelash, which actually, I think, helps bring it into focus, because it's hard to explain how this word has flipped, but woke-lash, you realize, okay, so there's some kind of a backlash against those perceived as having these concerns. That's happening in real time and not yet recorded in the dictionary. People forget that the dictionary has to have lots of concrete evidence of a word's use before we can write a good definition.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Wokelash is a word that we are still certainly paying attention to. It was used in news to pin Republican political gains on a perceived adverse reaction to woke politics. So we will see if wokelash continues to be used, in which case we will define it.

Peter Sokolowski: In a way, it's a great way to end our conversation of the words of the year of 2021, which is to say that we're looking ahead at a word that is changing before our very eyes, and so what our job is to do is to monitor that change, to watch it until it's stable enough to define.

Emily Brewster: Hi, this is Emily Brewster. Word Matters will be taking a holiday break until January 5th, when we'll return with more new shows. Thank you for listening, and, as always, we welcome your comments at wordmatters@m-w.com. Happy holidays from Ammon, Peter, and me. Join us on January 6th for more new episodes of Word Matters.

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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