Vaccine: Merriam-Webster’s word of the year follows 1,048% rise in searches

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP</span>
Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP

US dictionary publisher says searches for the word soared from the pre-pandemic days of 2019


From questions over mandates to concerns over global distribution, “vaccine” has been the clear word of the year, according to dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster.

Related: Fauci: US could face ‘fifth wave’ of Covid as Omicron variant nears

The choice of word of 2021 was a seemingly obvious one for the US publisher, which said searches for “vaccine” on its website increased by 601% compared with last year, amid a broad rollout of vaccinations for Covid-19.

The change from the pre-pandemic days of 2019 is even more stark, said the dictionary maker, with searches for the word soaring by 1,048%.

Debate about the distribution of vaccines, mandates for their use and their efficacy have driven the increase, the company said.

“This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, to 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.”

The new word of the year, released as the world reacts to the discovery of the Omicron variant in southern Africa, follows something of a theme: Merriam-Webster’s choice for 2020 was, unsurprisingly, “pandemic”.

Earlier this month, lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary chose “vax” as their word of the year, due to an explosion in the use of related terms such as “vaxxed” and “anti-vaxxer”.

The word “vax” was first recorded in English in 1799, with “vaccinate” and “vaccination” first appearing a year later.

All of these words find their root in the Latin word “vacca”, which means cow. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is because the English scientist Edward Jenner discovered that cowpox, a mild infection that occurs in cows, can help protect people from smallpox.

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