Word of the year: A look at some expressions that describe our world
Published on March 17, 2022 / Updated on May 10, 2022
How would you describe 2021 in one word?
Maybe you thought of a brand new word or one that represents an event that you felt was very important.
Every year, dictionary publishers around the world go through the process of choosing their word of the year by deciding what the previous year’s most significant term was.
Below, we’ll dig into the word of the year in more detail: what it is, what some dictionaries’ top picks are, how they’re chosen and what they’ve been in past years.
The word of the year (“WOTY”) is chosen every year by dictionary publishers around the world.
There’s never just one word, as each publication chooses its own every year.
The following are the picks for the word of the year in 2021 as chosen by Merriam-Webster, Oxford and Dictionary.com.
Vaccine (noun): A preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body’s immune response against a specific infectious agent or disease
Example: Thanks to past research, scientists were able to develop a coronavirus vaccine fairly quickly.
Vax (noun): An informal term for “vaccine”
Example: Many people who don’t want to get vaccinated are participating in anti-vax protests.
Allyship (noun): 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
Example: An important part of getting equal opportunities for all races is through allyship.
Dictionaries select a word or expression based on its importance in the past year, for example: how often it was used, how it described a cultural, environmental or political situation, etc.
The Merriam-Webster 2020 word of the year, for instance, was “pandemic.” That’s probably not a big surprise, considering it affected everyone around the globe!
So how, specifically, do publications make their selections?
When Merriam-Webster selects their word of the year, they look at usage data to figure out which words have become more common over the past 12 months.
At Oxford, a select group of people debates and then chooses the word that best describes the context and culture of a certain place in a particular year.
Dictionary.com does something similar. Based on search engine data, they identify a word that’s had important cultural influence over the past year.
Let’s take a look at some chosen words from the past years to get a sense of what was going on at the time!
If we don’t do something about the climate emergency now, the damage to the earth will be permanent.
I can’t believe the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over yet!
Not everyone likes to be called “he” or “she”; some people prefer the pronoun “they.”
We got justice today: The criminals went to court and were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
When you say that climate change isn’t serious, you’re spreading dangerous misinformation.
I had to quit my job. I had a co-worker who was creating a toxic work environment.
Police reports show that the woman did not act alone—her business partner was complicit in the robbery.
A youthquake has forced companies to turn away from traditional advertising and start working with social media influencers to promote their products.
The presidential candidate didn’t seem trustworthy. He was always tergiversating in interviews and during debates.
She kept posting really offensive pictures on Facebook so I unfriended her.
I got accepted to college! W00t!
Now you know what “word of the year” means, you’ve seen some of the words that different publications have chosen in the past and you have an idea of how they’re picked!
Make sure to check out other words of the year—it’s a great way to help you build your English vocabulary with some interesting and relevant terms!
Now it’s your turn: What word would you choose for this year—and how would you decide?
Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and son, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.