Word of the year: A look at some expressions that describe our world

Word of the year: A look at some expressions that describe our world

by Andrea Byaruhanga

Updated 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.

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What is the word of the year?

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.

Merriam Webster: Vaccine

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. 

Oxford English Dictionary: Vax

Vax (noun): An informal term for “vaccine”

Example: Many people who don’t want to get vaccinated are participating in anti-vax protests.

Dictionary.com: Allyship

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.

How do they choose the word of the year?

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.

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Past picks for word of the 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!

  • Climate emergency (Oxford, 2020): A situation in which we need to act immediately to decrease the negative effects of climate change.

If we don’t do something about the climate emergency now, the damage to the earth will be permanent.

  • Pandemic (Merriam Webster, 2020): An event in which a disease spreads very fast to a large population.

I can’t believe the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over yet! 

  • They (Merriam Webster, 2019): A pronoun that refers to a group of people or a single person in a gender-neutral way.

Not everyone likes to be called “he” or “she”; some people prefer the pronoun “they.”

  • Justice (Merriam Webster, 2018): The use of laws to punish people who commit crimes. 

We got justice today: The criminals went to court and were sentenced to 20 years in prison.

  • Misinformation (Dictionary.com, 2018): Information that isn’t true.

When you say that climate change isn’t serious, you’re spreading dangerous misinformation.

  • Toxic (Oxford, 2018): Containing poison; sometimes referring to a negative situation.

I had to quit my job. I had a co-worker who was creating a toxic work environment.

  • Complicit (Dictionary.com, 2017): Helping to do something wrong, such as committing a crime.

Police reports show that the woman did not act alone—her business partner was complicit in the robbery.

  • Youthquake (Oxford, 2017): A big change in culture, politics or society brought on by young people’s actions.

A youthquake has forced companies to turn away from traditional advertising and start working with social media influencers to promote their products.

  • Tergiversate (Dictionary.com, 2011): To make conflicting statements or avoid giving a clear answer to a question.

The presidential candidate didn’t seem trustworthy. He was always tergiversating in interviews and during debates.

  • Unfriend (Oxford, 2009): To remove someone from your list of friends on social media

She kept posting really offensive pictures on Facebook so I unfriended her.

  • W00t (Merriam Webster, 2007): A sound that expresses joy, first used by online gamers.

I got accepted to college! W00t!


What’s your pick?

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?

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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.