Vaccine Named Merriam-Webster's 2021 Word of the Year, Insurrection Also Considered

Merriam-Webster on Monday announced that its 2021 word of the year is "vaccine" after a sharp increase in searches since the COVID-19 pandemic. Their runner-up was "insurrection," the Associated Press reported.

Vaccine is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body's immune response against a specific infectious agent or disease."

Merriam-Webster selects its word of the year by looking at data and paying attention to spikes in word searches and usage. Vaccine was looked up 601 percent more in 2020 than in previous years. There has been a 1,048 percent increase in searches for the word this year, said Merriam-Webster's editor, Peter Sokolowski.

Earlier this year, Merriam-Webster updated its online definition of the word to include information about mRNA vaccines or messenger vaccines like the ones used for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

Interest in the runner-up word, insurrection, increased after the siege on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Merriam-Webster's full definition for insurrection is "an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government." Its essential meaning is "a usually violent attempt to take control of a government."

Searches for the word increased by 61,000 percent in 2020, Sokolowski said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Merriam-Webster, 2021 Word of the Year, Vaccine
A medical staff member prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, California, on January 21, 2021. Merriam-Webster has selected "vaccine" as its 2021 word of the year. Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

"This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021," Sokolowski told AP ahead of Monday'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 site.

"The pandemic was the gun going off and now we have the aftereffects," Sokolowski said.

At Merriam-Webster, lookups for "vaccine" increased when the first U.S. 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 UK.

Compared to 2019, when there was little urgency or chatter about vaccines, 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.

Inoculation, on the other hand, dates to 1714, in one sense referring to the act of injecting an "inoculum."

Other dictionary companies choose words of the year by committee, but not Merriam-Webster. The company has been declaring a word of the year since 2008. Among its runners-up in the word biography of 2021:

Insurrection: Interest was driven by the deadly January 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol. Arrests continue, as do congressional hearings over the attack by supporters of President Donald Trump. Some of Trump's allies have resisted subpoenas, including Steve Bannon.

Infrastructure: President Joe Biden was able to deliver what Trump often spoke of but never achieved: A bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law. When Biden proposed help with broadband access, eldercare and preschool, conversation changed from not only roads and bridges but "figurative infrastructure," Sokolowski said.

"Many people asked, what is infrastructure if it's not made out of steel or concrete? Infrastructure, in Latin, means underneath the structure," he said.

Perseverance: It's the name of NASA's latest Mars rover. It landed February 18, 2021. "Perseverance is the most sophisticated rover NASA has ever sent to the Red Planet, with a name that embodies NASA's passion, and our nation's capability, to take on and overcome challenges," the space agency said.

The name was thought up by Alexander Mather, a 14-year-old seventh-grader at Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Virginia. He participated in an essay contest organized by NASA. He was one of 28,000 K-12 students to submit entries.

Nomad: The word had its moment with the 2020 release of the film "Nomadland." It went on to win three Oscars in April of 2021, including best picture, director (Chloé Zhao) and actress (Frances McDormand). Zhao became the first woman of color to win best director.

AP's film writer, Jake Coyle, called the indie success "a plain-spoken meditation on solitude, grief and grit. He wrote that it "struck a chord in a pandemic-ravaged year. It made for an unlikely Oscar champ: A film about people who gravitate to the margins took center stage."

Other words in Merriam-Webster's Top 10: Cicada (we had an invasion), guardian (the Cleveland Indians became the Cleveland Guardians), meta (the lofty new name of Facebook's parent company), cisgender (a gender identity that corresponds to one's sex assigned at birth), woke (charged with politics and political correctness) and murraya (a tropical tree and the word that won the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee for 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde).

2021 Word of the Year, Vaccine, California
Merriam-Webster on Monday announced that its 2021 word of the year is "vaccine." Above, a sign at a vaccination booster shot clinic on October 1, 2021, in San Rafael, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to
  • Ad free experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts