"This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021," says Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor-at-large.

The selection comes as many countries around the world are reporting cases of Omicron variant and have moved to slam their doors in an act-now-ask-questions-later approach.
The selection comes as many countries around the world are reporting cases of Omicron variant and have moved to slam their doors in an act-now-ask-questions-later approach. (Reuters Archive)

With an expanded definition to reflect the times, Merriam-Webster has declared an omnipresent truth as its 2021 word of the year: vaccine.

"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 ahead of Monday's announcement.

"It really represents two different stories. One is the science story, which is this remarkable speed with which the vaccines were developed. But there are also debates regarding policy, politics, and political affiliation. It's one word that carries these two huge stories," he said.

The selection comes as many countries around the world are reporting cases of Omicron variant and have moved to slam their doors in an act-now-ask-questions-later approach.

The selection also follows "vax" as word of the year from the folks who publish the Oxford English Dictionary. 

And it comes after Merriam-Webster chose "pandemic" as tops in lookups last year on its online site.

"The pandemic was the gun going off and now we have the aftereffects," Sokolowski said.

At Merriam-Webster, lookups for "vaccine" increased 601 percent over 2020, when the first US shot was administered in New York in December after quick development, and months of speculation and discussion over efficacy. 

The world's first jab occurred earlier that month in the UK.

Compared to 2019, when there was little urgency or chatter about vaccines, Merriam-Webster logged an increase of 1,048 percent in lookups this year. Debates over inequitable distribution, vaccine mandates, and boosters kept interest high, Sokolowski said. 

So did vaccine hesitancy and friction over vaccine passports.

Origin of the word

The word "vaccine" wasn't birthed in a day, or due to a single pandemic. 

The first known use stretches back to 1882 but references pop up earlier related to fluid from cowpox pustules used in inoculations, Sokolowski said. 

It was borrowed from the New Latin "vaccina," which goes back to Latin's feminine "vaccinus," meaning "of or from a cow."

The Latin for cow is "vacca," a word that might be akin to the Sanskrit "vasa," according to Merriam-Webster.

Inoculation, on the other hand, dates to 1714, in one sense referring to the act of injecting an "inoculum."

How selections are made

Earlier this year, Merriam-Webster added to its online entry for "vaccine" to cover all the talk of mRNA vaccines, or messenger vaccines such as those for Covid-19 developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

While other dictionary companies choose words of the year by the committee, Merriam-Webster bases its selection on lookup data, paying close attention to spikes and, more recently, year-over-year increases in searches after weeding out evergreens. 

The company has been declaring a word of the year since 2008. 

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Source: AP