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(NEW YORK) — “The biggest science event of the year quickly became the biggest political debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, said in a press release. “Few words can express so much about one moment in time.”
The selection, which is based on search volume, comes as more than 196 million Americans are fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. The dictionary publishing company said in a press release Monday that even though the choice may be seen as “obvious,” data from its website’s search history paints a more complicated picture.
“Vaccine lookups increased 600%, and the story is about much more than medicine,” Sokolowski said in the press release. “It was at the center of debates about personal choice, political affiliation, professional regulations, school safety, healthcare inequity, and so much more.”
Sokolowski told ABC News on Monday that there was already increased search for vaccines coming into the year, as the first shots were administered in late 2020. Those searches continued in 2021, spiking in early summer and fall.
The dictionary publisher also expanded its definition of vaccine to include scientific advances in how vaccines work, adding information about the use of mRNA technology.
“Insurrection” was a notable runner-up as searches for the term spiked following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Sokolowski told ABC News that there was a 61,000% increase in searches for the word following the attack.
Another contender was “infrastructure,” which spiked in April as President Joe Biden made his pitch for a more than $2 trillion package investing in infrastructure.
Other words related to pop culture and lifestyle also trended, including “nomad,” which spiked after “Nomadland” swept the Oscars in April. The word “cicada” increased by 1,442% in May as Brood X emerged in the Northeast, with millions of the insects making their noisy entrances.
Sokolowski said some of 2021’s most popular words, like vaccine, may already be in the vocabulary of the average American and that the interest in the words may have “nothing to do with the spelling of vaccine, but it has a lot to do with our understanding of vaccines.”
“I’m betting most of the words that you look up in a given day are words that you have encountered before,” Sokolowski told ABC News. “Looking up a word isn’t the signal of ignorance, it’s the opposite of ignorance. It means that you want to know more nuanced, more specific knowledge”
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