Grammar Moses: Which words sent us running to the dictionary in 2021

  • Merriam-Webster's word of the year is vaccine, but people also searched for perseverance, insurrection, cicada and murraya.

    Merriam-Webster's word of the year is vaccine, but people also searched for perseverance, insurrection, cicada and murraya. AP File Photo/Dec. 6, 2019

Posted12/5/2021 5:30 AM

The Top 10 list, a popular news media vehicle for recapping the year and providing us with lifesaving copy when the news world tends to hibernate, can sometimes be upended when news actually happens.

It always seems to bite us in the rear end when we revisit luminaries we lost during the year.


For the purposes of this column, however, I turn to Merriam-Webster's announcement of its word of the year and its Top 10 lookups.

But what happens if such terms as "Invasion from Xenon 362," "flesh-eating middle-schoolers" or "No-mo-California" enter the zeitgeist before Jan. 1? I guess the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster will have egg on their faces, won't they?

That being said, and I'll no longer delay the point of this offering: M-W's word of the year is "vaccine."

Surprised? I wasn't, either.

Clearly, the reason for that is not just that it's been what scientists believe could tamp down the spread and severity of COVID-19 and its various mutant offspring, but because it has been a political football all year. To jab or not to jab? That has been our obsession.

We looked it up six times as often on in 2021 than we did in 2020. And 2021's numbers are 10.5 times what they were in 2019.

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A peculiar word to have to look up, I say. I wonder whether Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' misdirection, using "immunized" like a pump fake instead of "vaccinated," had people turning to their dictionaries to learn the difference.

Now for the 10 runners-up:


When the events of Jan. 6 unfolded in Washington, D.C., we all struggled a bit with what to call it, with "hootenanny" on one end of the spectrum and "villainous act of sedition" on the other.

As newspeople, we tried to find a middle ground, a word whose definition accurately depicted the situation without unnecessarily coloring it.

Many of us settled on "insurrection."

I imagine people of all political stripes sought out their own descriptors, so I'm pleased that people took the time to look up that definition.



For a brief period in February we were obsessed with the word "perseverance" because it was the name of the little rover that could that landed on Mars Feb. 18 after a 300-million-mile journey.

A seventh-grader came up with the name in a contest.

Dodge had already laid claim to "Intrepid," which, to my knowledge, never has traveled as far.


What used to be the past tense of "wake" was used often during the presidential election to describe someone who is sensitive to social justice issues. "Woke" initially carried a positive connotation but now is more often used with derision. And who says language can't change on a dime?

In the same vein, I bet you never listen to "Suzy Snowflake" the same way again on WLIT radio during its monthslong Christmas music torturefest.


The amazing Frances McDormand film "Nomadland" prompted people to look up what a "nomad" is.

I wonder if as many people looked up the title of the 1993 multiple-Oscar-winning "The Piano."

I know what a piano is, even if I can't figure out what the movie is all about.


When people wanted to figure out what President Joe Biden wanted to spend $2.3 trillion on, they ran to the dictionary to look up "infrastructure."

I can only assume they did so in increasing numbers to learn whether Wi-Fi that could support 16 simultaneously streaming devices per household would be part of the spending plan.


Who can blame us for forgetting what these little buggers are if they show up only once every 17 years?

What, that's enough? I won't disagree.


Finally, a word I didn't know -- but one Zaila Avant-Garde was savvy enough to spell correctly to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

If you didn't bother to look it up, it's a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.

Now, you may rush to look up "imbricated" and "pinnate."

In the interest of putting an end to this column, the final three are "cisgender," "guardian" and "meta."

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim's new book, "Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage," at Write him at and put "Grammar Moses" in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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