Words of the Year evoke the preoccupations of 2021

Words of the year from various dictionaries included: "vax," "perseverance," "allyship," "non-fungible token."


The Words of the Year “reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations” of the past year, according to Oxford Languages. For many people, 2021 looked a lot like 2020, and several dictionaries chose words that related to the pandemic. Oxford Languages picked vax, which has been in sporadic use since Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in the late 18th century. Last year, the word spawned numerous derivatives – double-vaxxed, vax card, and so on. Vax is unusual because it’s often written with double x’s when inflected. Oxford lexicographers point out that a single x is more common – foxes, waxing, taxed – except in “words relating to digital communications,” such as anti-vaxxer and doxxing (publishing someone’s private details online as a form of revenge).

Cambridge Dictionary tackled the pandemic from a different angle, choosing perseverance. Its lexicographers thought the word an appropriate commemoration for a year in which we had to persevere through “the challenges and disruption to our lives from Covid-19, climate disasters, political instability and conflict.” 

The lexicons of social justice and cryptocurrency also contributed Words of the Year. 

Dictionary.com chose allyship, “the status ... of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society.” Allies are not members of the group for which they advocate, and they do not take a leading role. A white ally works under the direction of Black leaders to further the cause of anti-racism, for example; a straight ally is a non-LGBTQ supporter of this community.

NFT (non-fungible token), “a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or collectible,” took the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year title. Fungible means “interchangeable,” and it’s often used in commodities, where one barrel of oil is, for practical purposes, the same as any other. The digital world is a collection of endlessly fungible zeros and ones; NFTs are an effort to circumvent this interchangeability, making digital “objects” unique and thus valuable. 

There are millions of copies of the “Mona Lisa” but only one painted by the hands of Leonardo da Vinci. Likewise, there might be millions of copies of the first tweet by Jack Dorsey (co-founder of Twitter), but only one “signed by its creator’s @handle on twitter” and registered to Sina Estavi in Malaysia, who bought it for $2.9 million in March. 

I don’t care for NFTs – to me they seem like an unnecessary attempt to create scarcity in a world of abundance – but fungible is a great word. 

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