Dictionary.com's Word of the Year Might Be a Surprising Choice for Some, Site Says

Popular dictionary website Dictionary.com has chosen "allyship" as its word of the year for 2021, and they acknowledged that it might be an unexpected choice.

"It might be a surprising choice for some," said John Kelly, the website's associate director of content and education. "In the past few decades, the term has evolved to take on a more nuanced and specific meaning. It is continuing to evolve and we saw that in many ways."

However, there is a key reason why "allyship" beat out more expected words, such as "vaccine" or "NFT." One of the definitions given for the word on the website 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."

The website attributes this definition to the rise in intersectional social activism in recent years, particularly in 2020 and 2021.

"This year, we saw a lot of businesses and organizations very prominently, publicly, beginning efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Allyship is tied to that," Kelly told AP. "In the classroom, there is a flashpoint around the term critical race theory. Allyship connects with this as well."

The word's history goes back to 1849. That year, "allyship" was written in the novel The Lord of the Manor, or Lights and Shades of Country Life, by Thomas Hall. Within the framework of social justice, the concept of allyship was found to be discussed as far back as 1943 in pamphlets and theory texts.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

BLM Protest Sweden
Popular dictionary website Dictionary.com has chosen "allyship" as its word of the year for 2021. Above, protesters take part in a Black Lives Matter march in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 3, 2020, in solidarity with protests raging across the United States over the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Photo by Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

The more traditional definition of "allyship" is the relationship of "persons, groups or nations associating and cooperating with one another for a common cause or purpose."

The word is set apart from "alliance," which Dictionary.com defines in one sense as a "merging of efforts or interests by persons, families, states or organizations."

In addition, teachers, frontline workers and mothers who juggled jobs, home duties and child care in lockdown gained allies as the pandemic took hold last year.

Without an entry for "allyship," Kelly said the site saw a steep rise in lookups for "ally" in 2020 and large spikes in 2021. It was in the top 850 searches out of thousands and thousands of words this year. Dictionary.com broadened the definition of "ally" to include the more nuanced meaning. The terms "DEI" and "critical race theory" made their debuts as entries on the site with "allyship" this year.

What it means to be an authentic ally has taken on fresh significance as buzz around the word has grown louder. One of the aspects of allyship, as it has emerged, is how badly it can go.

Among the example's of how to use the word in a sentence cited by Merriam-Webster is this one written by Native activist Hallie Sebastian: "Poor allyship is speaking over marginalized people by taking credit and receiving recognition for arguments that the unprivileged have been making for their entire lives."

As global diversity, equity and inclusion executive Sheree Atcheson wrote in Forbes, allyship is a "lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people." It's not, she said, "self-defined—work and efforts must be recognized by those you are seeking to ally with."

Allyship should be an "opportunity to grow and learn about ourselves, whilst building confidence in others," Atcheson added.

While the Oxford English Dictionary dates that use of the word to the 1970s, Kelly found a text, Allies of the Negro by Albert W. Hamilton, published in 1943. It discusses extensively the potential allies of Black people in the struggle for racial equality:

"What some white liberals are beginning to realize is that they better begin to seek the Negro as an ally," he wrote. "The new way of life sought by the liberal will be a sham without the racial equality the Negro seeks. And the inclusion of the Negro in the day-to-day work, in the organization, the leadership and the rallying of the support necessary to win a better world, can only be done on the basis of equality."

On the other side of allyship, Kelly said, "is a feeling of division, of polarization. That was Jan. 6." Allyship, he said, became a powerful prism in terms of the dichotomy at a chaotic cultural time during the last two years.

While Merriam-Webster relies solely on site search data to choose a word of the year, Dictionary.com takes a broader approach. It scours search engines, a broad range of text and taps into cultural influences to choose its word of the year.

Allyship
This screen image released by Dictionary.com shows an entry for allyship, named Dictionary.com's word of the year. Dictionary.com via AP