Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news. Read previous columns here.
What words and phrases best encapsulate the zeitgeist of 2021? Debating the Word of the Year has become an annual ritual, with dictionary publishers, academics and commentators all chiming in. I have the honor of overseeing the granddaddy of these selections: The American Dialect Society has anointed a WOTY every year since 1990, in a process that is open to public participation.
A stroll through the lexical landscape of 2021 tells us a lot about our preoccupations, passions and peeves. Of course, just as in 2020—when the ADS selected “Covid” as its Word of the Year — the pandemic has never been far from our thoughts and has even dominated public discourse. Here, I’ve broken down some of the year’s salient words and phrases into major themes relating to politics, Covid-19, technology, the economy and online culture. Whether you were complaining about “TFG,” getting “vaxxed” or “boosted,” puzzling over “NFTs” and “SPACs,” or simply dealing with a “no bones day,” 2021 had a little something for everyone.
Insurrection. While “coup,” “riot” and “sedition” have all been used for the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, “insurrection” became the most common label for the event, after President Biden and others latched on to the term. Merriam-Webster, which defines an insurrection as “an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government,” saw a huge spike in lookups for the term in its online dictionary.
“Debating the Word of the Year has become an annual ritual, with dictionary publishers, academics and commentators all chiming in.”
Let’s Go Brandon. The president’s conservative critics embraced this playful euphemism after an NBC Sports reporter misheard a vulgar anti-Biden chant in the stands while interviewing Brandon Brown after an October race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
TFG. President Biden engaged in his own kind of euphemism when he referred to his predecessor,
as “the former guy” at a CNN town hall meeting in Milwaukee in February. Many commentators took up the term, further shortening it to “TFG” as a way of avoiding saying Mr. Trump’s name.
Boosted. When the Food and Drug Administration began approving coronavirus booster shots back in September, the word “booster” naturally got a boost. But the booster rollout also brought with it a new linguistic spin on this old term. To be “boosted” now means that you have received a booster shot. Some have also tried to convert “booster” into a verb, but “boosted” has proved more popular than “boostered.” As Dr. Anthony Fauci has implored, “When your time comes to get boosted, get boosted.”
Omicron. The World Health Organization’s decision to label significant coronavirus variants with Greek letters inexorably brought us to the 15th letter of the alphabet, “omicron.” In the month since Omicron got its name, it has swiftly become the most dominant variant. “Delta,” the name for the variant that spread quickly over the summer, has now been displaced as the grimmest Greek letter—though there still is no consensus on how to pronounce “Omicron.”
Vax. Two dictionary publishers that have joined the Word of the Year action converged on similar choices for 2021. Merriam-Webster selected “vaccine,” while Oxford Languages opted for the snappier form, “vax,” which has skyrocketed in usage. While hopes for “Hot Vax Summer” quickly melted, “vax” has persisted, often with a double “x” in such forms as “anti-vaxxer” and “getting vaxxed.”
Metaverse. In October,
announced that the parent company of Facebook would be rebranded as Meta, in an effort to pivot the company’s future to their growing ventures in a virtual-reality platform dubbed the “metaverse.” The term has its roots in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel “Snow Crash,” but the Zuckerbergian concept of the metaverse as a digital realm is much sunnier than Mr. Stephenson’s dystopian vision.
NFT. Short for “non-fungible token,” the abbreviation “NFT” stands for the big tech sensation of 2021: digital assets that use the technology that powers cryptocurrency to make unique tokens, each with its own identification that can’t be replicated. Because NFTs aren’t interchangeable with anything—i.e., not “fungible”— new investment markets have emerged for their sale, along with worries about a possible “NFT bubble.”
Web3. While “Web3” (short for “Web 3.0,” built on the bones of “Web 1.0” and “Web 2.0”) was coined in 2014 by Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood, the term truly took off in 2021. The latest evolution of the Web envisioned by Mr. Wood and others is ostensibly more decentralized, with blockchain technology promising a distribution of Internet services that would not be dominated by the big tech companies. Definitions of “Web3” remain hazy, however.
Great Resignation. In a Bloomberg Businessweek article in May, Texas A&M management professor Anthony Klotz warned, “The Great Resignation is coming,” predicting that workers would leave their jobs in huge numbers as the pandemic wore on. Mr Klotz’s coinage was modeled on the Great Depression, as well as the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Employment trends have borne out his prediction, leading some employers to seek a “Great Reimagination.”
SPAC. An acronym for “special purpose acquisition company,” “SPAC” refers to an investment vehicle that allows a company to go public without going through the traditional IPO process. Also dubbed “blank-check companies,” SPACs have been lauded as a way to give ordinary investors a leg up in buying into startups, but they face significant opposition in the courts.
Supply chain. A venerable economic concept, the “supply chain” became a source of anxiety for everyone in 2021, as the coronavirus pandemic led to a crisis in the interconnected global system of supplying goods and services to consumers.
Cheugy. In the latest intergenerational skirmish, members of Gen Z have taken to poking fun at the lifestyles of millennials, ridiculing them online as off-trend—or “cheugy.” The word was coined in 2013 by Gaby Rasson, then a high school student and now a 23-year-old software developer. “Cheugy” hit the big time when it was featured in a New York Times article in April, though the media exposure may have also signaled the slang term’s death knell.
No bones day. When Jonathan Graziano began posting videos of his dog Noodle on TikTok, he unwittingly popularized some new phrases. If Noodle is alert and stands up in the morning, it’s a “bones day,” but if he goes limp and doesn’t want to get out of bed, it’s going to be a “no bones day.” Pandemic-weary viewers were quick to commiserate with Noodle’s “no bones days.”
Yassification. Eye-popping images from a
account known as YassifyBot have been making the rounds online in memeworthy fashion. Derived from the exhortation “yas queen” (long popular in drag culture), “yassification” involves applying “beauty filters” to a person’s photo to transform it into a cartoonishly unrecognizable image.
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