But as everyone can agree, the word is everywhere and it’s controversial.
“Vaccine” is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year. The word was selected based on lookup data, notable spikes, and year-over-year increases in searches.
“This is a word that has kind of two parallel but intersecting stories: one is a medical story, and one is a political story or a cultural story,” said Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large.
“The ‘messenger RNA vaccine’ was new to me, I had never heard of it, and unless you were a research scientist, you probably haven’t,” Sokolowski told CNN. “Therefore, the dictionary didn’t even cover a definition.”
On the site, lookups for “vaccine” shot up 601% over 2020, especially toward the latter part of the year when the first US shot was administered in December.
“Vaccine” also has a compelling etymology, according to Sokolowski. The word derives from the Latin word “vaccinus,” meaning “of or from a cow.” The Latin for cow is “vacca.” The word later entered French as “vaccin,” then into English with today’s spelling.
Sokolowski believes people will continue to look up the word in high numbers for perhaps years to come, as the term “vaccine” becomes a more regular feature of daily life.
According to Sokolowski, people turn to the dictionary in times of uncertainty and urgency. The dictionary is a way to achieve a consensus, which “doesn’t mean that we agree with each other on the policies, but that we agree with the words that we use as carrying meaning and having a specific meaning.”
“We are in a period of time when terms of identity, whether it’s transgender identity, racial identity, ethnic identity, the pronouns that we use… are the object of a huge amount of concentrated attention in our language,” Sokolowski acknowledged.
“In controversial times or uncertain times, there is this neutral and objective arbiter of meaning and that is the dictionary,” Sokolowski contended. “That’s why we revise constantly to make sure our dictionary is accurate, but it also means that there is a sort of constant.”
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