Merriam-Webster Declares 'Vaccine' the Word of the Year After Updating Definition
A year after the COVID-19 vaccine was first administered in the United States, Merriam-Webster has declared the 2021 word of the year.
The country's oldest dictionary publisher announced Monday that "vaccine" took the title, as searches for the term overwhelmingly increased 601% year-over-year from 2020 and 1,048% since 2019.
Vaccines have been at the center of several divisive debates since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, with the first doses in the U.S. being administered in December. Interest in the word surged early in the pandemic, with many looking to potential cures and treatments as a way back to normalcy, while others have pushed back on vaccine mandates despite clear science showing the shots save lives.
"This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021," Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor-at-large, told the Associated Press. "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."
As the top COVID-19 vaccines trigger an immune response in a whole new way, Merriam-Webster updated the word's definition in May. The previous definition, "a preparation of killed microorganisms, living attenuated organisms, or living fully virulent organisms that is administered to produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease," was revised to the following:
1 : a preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body's immune response against a specific infectious agent or disease: such as
a : an antigenic preparation of a typically inactivated or attenuated (see ATTENUATED sense 2) pathogenic agent (such as a bacterium or virus) or one of its components or products (such as a protein or toxin)
b : a preparation of genetic material (such as a strand of synthesized messenger RNA) that is used by the cells of the body to produce an antigenic substance (such as a fragment of virus spike protein)"
Earlier this year, Oxford English Dictionary announced "vax," the commonly shortened version of "vaccine," as their word of 2021.