Insights November 29, 2021

Anti-vaxxer and CO2: new dictionary words are a sign of the times

By Living Word

The Oxford dictionary recently chose ‘vax’ as its word of 2021, also adding words such as ‘eco-anxiety’ just before the COP26 climate conference, which wrapped up in Glasgow last month. This is while Merriam-Webster added 453 new words to its dictionary this past October, including terms like ‘long covid’ and ‘super spreader’.

We take a look at what words and phrases made it into some of the most prominent dictionaries, and how the English language has changed in 2021.

Sign of the times

While the Oxford English dictionary crowned ‘vax’ as its word of 2021, Merriam-Webster included even more coronavirus-related words last month. The term ‘super-spreader’ was among them, relating to a thing that causes an exponential rise in coronavirus cases, as well as ‘long covid’ and ‘vaccine passport’.

Oxford English dictionary said that ‘vax’ was a “particularly striking term” in 2021, in that it appeared over 72 times more than it had done last year. “It has generated numerous derivatives that we are now seeing in a wide range of informal contexts,” the company explained in a statement. From “vax sites and vax cards, to getting vaxxed and being fully vaxxed, no word better captures the atmosphere of the past year than vax”, it added.

‘Centre of preoccupations’

President of Oxford Languages, Casper Grathwohl, explained that ‘vax’ beat every other word to the top spot as it had seemed to be at the “centre of our preoccupations this year”.

“The evidence was everywhere, from dating apps (vax 4 vax) and pent-up frustrations (hot vax summer) to academic calendars (vaxx to school) and bureaucratic operations (vax pass). In monopolising our discourse, it’s clear the language of vaccines is changing how we talk – and think – about public health, community and ourselves,” he added.

Covid wasn’t the only major theme to make the list, though, with recent climate events and the Glasgow COP26 conference meaning that words like ‘eco-anxiety’ have also been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Not only this, but terms like ‘climate strike’, ‘climate refugee’ and ‘climate justice’ were added, perhaps acknowledging the influence of climate activists such as Greta Thunberg.

These new words highlight where our concerns have been over the last year. The sheer number of words added to dictionaries on a regular basis, meanwhile, demonstrates just how quickly a language can change in times of crisis – be it the pandemic or climate change. Who knows what 2022’s Oxford word of the year will be; hopefully, something slightly more positive. Whatever it is, though, it will undoubtedly reflect the mood of the year – just like ‘vax’ has done for 2021.