Merriam-Webster chooses 'vaccine' as its 2021 word of the year

"Insurrection" and "infrastructure" were named runners-up.

November 29, 2021, 1:37 PM

Merriam-Webster announced on Monday that "vaccine" was its word of the year for 2021.

"The biggest science event of the year quickly became the biggest political debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine," Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, said in a press release. "Few words can express so much about one moment in time."

PHOTO: A man gives a thumbs after receiving his first Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine  at Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, April 23, 2021.
A man gives a thumbs after receiving his first Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, April 23, 2021.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

The selection, which is based on search volume, comes as more than 196 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. The dictionary publishing company said in a press release Monday that even though the choice may be seen as "obvious," data from its website's search history paints a more complicated picture.

“Vaccine lookups increased 600%, and the story is about much more than medicine,” Sokolowski said in the press release. “It was at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequity, and so much more."

Sokolowski told ABC News on Monday that there was already increased search for vaccines coming into the year, as the first shots were administered in late 2020. Those searches continued in 2021, spiking in early summer and fall.

The dictionary publisher also expanded its definition of vaccine to include scientific advances in how vaccines work, adding information about the use of mRNA technology.

"Insurrection" was a notable runner-up as searches for the term spiked following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Sokolowski told ABC News that there was a 61,000% increase in searches for the word following the attack.

PHOTO: Medical lab scientists work on samples collected in the Novavax phase 3 Covid-19 clinical vaccine trial conducted at the Harborview Medical Center on Feb. 12, 2021, in Seattl
Medical lab scientists work on samples collected in the Novavax phase 3 Covid-19 clinical vaccine trial conducted at the Harborview Medical Center on Feb. 12, 2021, in Seattle.
Karen Ducey/Getty Images, FILE

Another contender was "infrastructure," which spiked in April as President Joe Biden made his pitch for a more than $2 trillion package investing in infrastructure.

Other words related to pop culture and lifestyle also trended, including "nomad," which spiked after "Nomadland" swept the Oscars in April. The word "cicada" increased by 1,442% in May as Brood X emerged in the Northeast, with millions of the insects making their noisy entrances.

PHOTO: People stand in line to receive COVID-19 vaccines in Reading. Pa., April 21, 2021.
People stand in line to receive COVID-19 vaccines in Reading. Pa., April 21, 2021.
Reading Eagle/MediaNews Group via Getty Images, FILE

Sokolowski said some of 2021's most popular words, like vaccine, may already be in the vocabulary of the average American and that the interest in the words may have "nothing to do with the spelling of vaccine, but it has a lot to do with our understanding of vaccines."

"I'm betting most of the words that you look up in a given day are words that you have encountered before," Sokolowski told ABC News. "Looking up a word isn't the signal of ignorance, it's the opposite of ignorance. It means that you want to know more nuanced, more specific knowledge"

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