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Words that define 2021 include vaccine, infrastructure and insurrection


If you had to define 2021 with just one word, what would it be? Can't decide? Well, luckily, we have experts who can tell us based on internet data what words were most on people's minds throughout the year.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: There are certain words that are looked up day in and day out - a word like integrity or a word like ubiquitous. But in the last 12 months, we saw a few words that really do tell a specific story.

KELLY: That's Peter Sokolowski, a lexicographer and the editor at large for Merriam-Webster. He says the dictionary's word of the year was - and maybe you guessed it - vaccine.

SOKOLOWSKI: Vaccine is a big medical story of the past year. But it's also a big political story of the last year, which is to say that the policies regarding mandates in particular sent this word to the top of our lookup list. So really, it's a double story.

KELLY: Yeah. Sokolowski says people looked up vaccine steadily all year long. That's not always the case. One word that spiked this year was infrastructure. The term, brought over from Europe following World War II, was on people's minds because of all the buzz around President Biden's Build Back Better legislation.

SOKOLOWSKI: Partly because the political story was about the definition of infrastructure, many people were asking, you know, does medical care, does fast internet - do those things constitute infrastructure? And so that sent people to the dictionary.

KELLY: And the word that got the largest spike in lookups this year for Merriam-Webster - insurrection.

SOKOLOWSKI: If we compare the lookups of insurrection from January 7, 2021, to the previous years, this spike was something like 60,000% - so a story that was clearly on the minds of the public, a word that had a definition that was important to that story and one, of course, that continues as a news story and as a controversy to this day.

KELLY: Sokolowski says he won't predict what words may be popular in 2022, but what he does know is people are paying attention, that words still matter.

SOKOLOWSKI: And that the dictionary is something that people turn to in moments of crisis. There is a comfort in knowing that there's a neutral and objective arbiter of meaning, and that's the dictionary.

KELLY: Amen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GO FIND SONG, "DICTIONARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.