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Dictionaries perfectly summarize a year with just one word

Every year, the world’s leading dictionaries add new words. It’s quite the tradition. We’ve been inventing new words since we were grunting at each other. We still grunt at each other, but we also talk at and to each other now, so the Word of the Year reflects the times we live in and the constantly evolving nature of communication. 

As the pandemic continues to grip the globe, the ‘theys’ that decide things among the literary literati recognized its unrelenting influence by naming ‘vax’ (Oxford Dictionary) and ‘vaccine’ (Miriam-Webster Dictionary) as their choices as the best descriptors for 2021.

In 2021, every conversation seemed to revolve around or at least touch on a discussion of how one’s vax status affected life. Social media is rife with pro- and anti-vaxers shouting about the correctness of his/her stance on the subject of vaccinations.

We were (and still are) asked for our vax certificates when we want to enter a restaurant or bar and sporting or music events. 

Inquiring about someone’s vax status was also a topic of discussion. When asking folks over for drinks, is it o.k. to ask about their status so others are comfortable? Or is a ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ plan better?

The word vaccine itself isn’t new but referring to it as being ‘vaxed’ or getting a ‘jab’ or being ‘boostered’ (boosted means something else entirely – stealing – so don’t use that) is a now the norm.

Vaccinations have been around for centuries, according to the Immunisation Advisory Centre (immune.org.nz). Edward Jenner is considered the founder of vaccinology in the West in 1796, after he inoculated a 13-year-old-boy with vaccinia virus (cowpox) and demonstrated immunity to smallpox.

Receiving vaccines from early childhood on has always been no big deal. Parents take babies, toddlers and young children to the family doctor to ‘get their needle.’ Older kids and teens get updates of these, and as adults we are smart if we get tetanus, Hepatitis and other shots to ensure we don’t become ill. Some have chosen to not have their children vaccinated and must file proper exemption paperwork, but the vast majority choose to protect their little ones from previously dreaded diseases. In recent years, enough parents had their offspring duck the measles vaccine that there have been outbreaks around the globe. That seems to be a pretty clear case of cause and result.

BUT the COVID vaccines have lit up the media and caused a rift in society like no other medical treatment in memory. Whereas most vaccinations were heralded as a societal godsend, the COVID vaccines have been both lauded and derided virulently. Many looked to their development and distribution as a turning point in getting back to normal, while a small – but very vocal – number has not only refused the vaccines for themselves and their children, but they also aren’t shy about telling others – over any medium possible – that the vaccines are dangerous, saying that “long-term effects aren’t known.”

The vaccinated majority are turning toward the unvaccinated asking why the hospitals are full and why many areas of modern life are again denied to them, like dining out, going to events and socializing with friends. 

These divisive terms have been chosen as Words of the Year for good reason.

But taking another approach, Dictionary.com named ‘allyship’ as their choice. It’s a term that isn’t new as a concept but has come into popular use only lately. Being considered an ally of marginalized groups of people has gained importance with the Black Lives Matter movement, but I remember it coming to wider use a few years ago on social media with a meme that said, “I’m not gay but am a proud ally.” It really hit close to home as my gay cousin had recently committed suicide.

Allyship seems like a great word to spotlight during another difficult year.

Likewise, Cambridge Dictionary came to the table with a lift-up term to highlight for 2021: perseverance. Since we’ve survived the second and are rounding the bend toward the third year of the pandemic, perseverance is a great thing to strive toward.

Will ceasing our bitching and whining while moving toward thriving instead of just surviving be our pledge for 2022? Will we persevere through a multi-year global traumatic event as our grandparents and great grandparents did with WWI and WW11, the Great Depression, the Spanish flu etc.?

Reviewing past words of the year reveal much about society’s mindset of the time and reactions to other world events and trends.

‘Pandemic’ was, not surprisingly, the word of the year for 2020, according to the folks at Merriam Webster. Its cousins COVID (not really a word but an acronym) and virus are right up there, too.

‘Climate emergency’ (a phrase, again not a word) was Oxford’s choice in 2019, while the pronoun ‘they’ was designated by Merriam Webster. We’ve gotten used to using what used to always be a plural pronoun with a singular verb. It was a tough switch for some of us, but respectful use of language is imperative.

In 2018, Oxford deemed the word ‘toxic’ its choice and ‘justice’ was decided on by the folks at Merriam Webster. As you can see there was a lot of Trumping going on that year, with the Mueller report, general justice and social justice atrocities, as well as the spreading of toxicity via Twitter.

2017 “Hey Boomered” us with ‘youthquake’ as its choice by the thought leaders at Oxford, while ‘feminism’ led the charge at Merriam Webster. The latter spurred on by pink pussy hats, the women’s march on Washington and a general disgust with being grabbed by the nether regions – collectively, if not individually.

We begged for “just the facts, ma’am” in 2016, as evidenced by Oxford’s choice for Word of the Year as ‘post-truth’ following the rollicking election earlier that year. So, it seems fitting that Webster’s choice was the word ‘surreal,’ which turned out to be just the beginning of the next often surreal four years of news coverage.

The Oxford Dictionary forgot that it is an arbiter of words and decided an emoji – the happy face/teary eye one to be exact – would wear the Word of the Year crown in 2015. Over at Merriam Webster they also couldn’t find a worthy word to recognize, so they decided that ‘ism’ (the suffix) was their choice. Perhaps this reflects society’s growing sensitivity and willingness to be offended at the drop of a hat. Or maybe it was a legitimate reaction to the growing awareness of ageism, sexism, racism. Maybe ‘ist’ would also be a good choice, with words like elitist coming to mind.

You may remember hearing in the news that ‘selfie’ was named Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2013 and ‘vape’ in 2014 and thereby officially added to their lofty tome.

If you are a Simpsons fan, you have seen Lisa the Iconoclast, episode 144, aired in 1996, about Lisa exposing the founder of Springfield as a murderous pirate. It marked the debut of the word “cromulent,” coined by David X. Cohen, a writer from the Simpsons who satisfied the producers unusual request to make up one of two words that sound like real words. The other one being “embiggens.” Neither one is in the Oxford English Dictionary despite the latter word being first used in 1884 for C.A. Ward and then again by Dan Greaney. It also appears in several scientific publications. Making up words is something that trendsetters do, whether it’s the Simpsons, Shakespeare, or Steve Jobs or just generated spontaneously within the hivemind of the techno-sphere. Don’t be afraid to define and market your business with made-up words. Go ahead and make your mark on the English language and define your place within our culture. Your new words might even be in the dictionary someday.

Words that we won’t miss from the past two years are ‘pivot,’ ‘mask,’ ‘social distancing,’ and ‘lockdown.’ There was a need for the last three to get this thing under control, but I won’t be sad to see the backside of them. Nor I suspect will you. But I really hope I neither hear or – heaven forbid – use the word ‘pivot’ again. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, we were all pivoting (oops!) so fast its surprising that we didn’t spin out. Turning to meet each new challenge. As businesspeople we’re like ducks: paddling like crazy but trying to keep the ripples to a minimum on top of the water. It takes so much energy and good humour to do both.

So maybe 2021’s Word of the Year should be humour. Because, holy shit, could we use more of that! And, grace, always a good commodity.

Humour and grace – my nominations Words of the Year – for this most auspicious juncture in history, which will forever be known as 2021.

Do you have a word you think deserves special recognition this year? Is it the word and deserve to take home the big prize of Word of the Year?

I would love to hear your thoughts and words. Hit me up at jill@writeoncommunicationservices.com.

A word nerd and avid traveller, Jill Ellis-Worthington uses words to bring business to your business at Write.On Communication Services. Check her out at www.writeoncommunicationservices.com