Merriam-Webster's 2021 word of the year is vaccine, the company announced on Monday, following a year that was marked by inoculations to prevent COVID-19 and the larger debate regarding the shots that was at times defined by politics.
The company said it selected vaccine as its word of the year because it represents two meanings: the medical accomplishment to help fight the pandemic, and the larger discussion the shots opened nationwide.
"The word vaccine was about much more than medicine in 2021. For many, the word symbolized a possible return to the lives we led before the pandemic. But it was also at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequality, and so much more," the company wrote in a statement.
Merriam-Webster said lookups of the word vaccine skyrocketed over the past year, increasing by 601 percent from 2020.
Interest in the word, however, started increasing even before vaccines started being administered in the U.S. According to the company, lookups of the word vaccine grew by 1,048 percent in 2021 as compared to 2019.
In 2020, lookups of the word vaccine focused largely on the funding, development and distributions of the shots. This year, however, people have largely been looking up the word vaccine in response to stories about policies and approval associated with the jab, in addition to vaccination rates.
"The promising medical solution to the pandemic that upended our lives in 2020 also became a political argument and source of division. The biggest science story of our time quickly became the biggest debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine," the company wrote in a statement.
Merriam-Webster said it revised and expanded its definition for the word vaccine in May. It previously defined the word as "a preparation of killed microorganisms, living attenuated organisms, or living fully virulent organisms that is administered to produce or artificially increase immunity to a particular disease," but now it includes three different descriptions, with one focusing on the mRNA technology that was used to develop the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.
The word vaccine comes from the Latin word "vacca," which means "cow," according to Merriam-Webster, because the term was initially used to describe inoculating humans with doses of cowpox to protect them against smallpox.
Merriam-Webster also named 10 runner-up words of the year, including insurrection, perseverance, woke, nomad, infrastructure, cicada, Murraya, cisgender, guardian and meta.