Oh happy day, it’s that geek-heaven time of year for word nerds.
The Words of the Year for 2021 have almost all been announced now, so logophiles across the world are in serious rejoice mode. (Log·o·phile, noun, a lover of words. From logos, meaning speech, words, reason, and philos, meaning dear, friendly).
Clearly, I am one of them. And just as clearly, I can’t help myself. Every year around this time, it is my pleasure and imperative to share with readers – who I hope are just as fascinated as I am – just what the year’s chosen words are.
Not to bury the lede (too late), but I should mention that words of the year are selected by lexicographers (persons who compile dictionaries), linguists (persons who study language), grammarians (people who study grammar) and historians (OK, I’ll stop now) and others interested in language evolution.
Just as 2020’s words of the year revolved around COVID-19, so do a few – but not all – of 2021’s.
The Oxford English Dictionary selected “Vax” as its 2021 word of the year. Each year they choose among words that have caught the attention of the public in large ways and have the potential for lasting cultural significance.
Vaccine is a common word already, but Fiona McPherson, senior editor for new words at Oxford Languages, the dictionary’s publisher, said the abbreviation “is a short, punchy, attention-grabbing word” that appeared more than 72 times as frequently in September 2021 than the year before.
Amid all the gloom on the subject, there is humor. Oxford’s report examined the vocabulary accompanying the word vaccination in nine other languages during its study and came up with an amusing anecdote about regional variations for the word in English. McPherson, a Scot, noted she was excited when she was able to “get a jag,” which confused her English father-in-law, who thought she was talking about a car.
Words really can be entertaining.
Merriam-Webster Dictionaries selected “Vaccine” as its word this year, based on the number of lookups of the word, which increased 601% over 2020 and 1,048% over 2019.
Cambridge Dictionary selected “Perseverance” as its word of the year, stating that it “perfectly captures the undaunted will of people across the world to never give up.” The word was looked up globally on Cambridge Dictionary more than 243,000 times in 2021.
Contributing to curiosity about the word, according to Cambridge, was a steep increase in searches on their website after NASA’s Perseverance Rover made its descent to the surface of Mars last February. “We often see spikes in lookups of words associated with current events when those words are less familiar,” said Wendalyn Nichols, Cambridge’s publishing manager.
Two of the most surprising choices came from Dictionary.com and Collins Dictionary.
“Allyship” was the word selected by Dictionary.com. This is the first time they chose a word new to their dictionary in the year it was selected. Allyship is defined – hang in there, this is a long one – as 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.
Interestingly, the word allyship dates back to the mid-1800s, but Dictionary.com researchers observed that this advocacy by nonmembers for a group or individual’s inclusion in society has had a higher profile in the past 15 years as a part of many of the news stories of the year – from anti-Asian racism to the mental health of athletes, Britney Spears’s conservatorship to the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. They stated that since 2011, frequency in use of the word has surged an average of more than 700%.
Collins Dictionary’s 2021 word of the year is “NFT,” which is defined as an abbreviation for nonfungible token. An NFT is defined as a unique digital certificate registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible.
Frankly I’m way out of my element on that one. I understand that it is something of a virtual signature and part of a digital revolution that I am yet to have fully, or barely partially, digest or understand. So, just let me leave it there, noting that some of the other candidates Collins considered for 2021 word of the year were “Crypto” and “Metaverse.”
I have a lot of catching up to do.
Personally, I most enjoy reading about the choices and their rationale from Oxford Dictionaries and the American Dialect Society (which chose COVID last year), both of which put out extensive information. This latter organization is not scheduled to release its 2021 word of the year until its annual meeting in January. I decided not to wait for it because by then, I think we’re pretty much going to be done with 2021, and, besides, I’m not a patient woman.
And finally, but related, I do have to mark the passing of a wonderful writing competition that had been sponsored by Oxford and the BBC, in which children ages 5-13 submitted short essays, out of which an Oxford Dictionaries for Children word of the year was selected – based on frequency of use in the assorted stories. The annual report from that contest made for wonderful reading.
Turns out, 2020 was the final year of that competition, when 134,000 students wrote and entered stories. The word of the year that emerged then, unsurprisingly, was “coronavirus.”
I loved this particular excerpt from one of the stories last year, from an 8-year-old girl: “That night I had an interesting dream, a magic sparkling unicorn came and whispered to me the secret ingredients of the cure for the coronavirus.”
What a lovely child’s eye view of hope. And isn’t it wonderful that children write such words and read books and are interested in the use of language?
While this particular writing contest has ended, this vintage logophile has her own hope – that children everywhere keep writing and exploring use of all the interesting words out there, plus the new ones they may help to create.
Happy New Year to all, and may your 2022 be filled with kindness and the happiest of words.