SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Merriam-Webster announced its word of the year on Monday: “Vaccine.”
The word vaccine saw a 601% increase in lookups from 2020 to 2021, it had continual spikes of attention throughout the year and it was about much more than medicine this year, according to the company that’s known for its dictionaries.
Merriam-Webster says the promising medical solution to the COVID-19 pandemic became a vehicle for ideological conflict and a 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,” wrote the company.
Merriam-Webster actually expanded its definition of vaccine in May since the mRNA method triggers an immune response in a new way.
The definition formerly read “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.”
It was replaced with the following:
1 : a preparation that is administered (as by injection) to stimulate the body's immune response against a specific infectious agent or disease: such as
a : an antigenic preparation of a typically inactivated or attenuated (see ATTENUATED sense 2) pathogenic agent (such as a bacterium or virus) or one of its components or products (such as a protein or toxin)
b : a preparation of genetic material (such as a strand of synthesized messenger RNA) that is used by the cells of the body to produce an antigenic substance (such as a fragment of virus spike protein)
Merriam-Webster says the word vaccine comes from the Latin word for cow, "vacca," because the term was initially used to refer to inoculation using doses of cowpox that protect humans against smallpox.
This word is a relatively recent one in English, dating back to the 1880s, according to Merriam-Webster.