Top words of the year 2021: From ‘Vax’ to ‘Breadcrumbing’ to ‘Cisgender’

Greg Markley


The Name of the Wind (2007) is a novel by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s focus is wizardry and a young man’s coming of age. Rothfuss is a fantasy writer from Wisconsin. One of his quotes is: “Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”

 Rothfuss’ quote can relate to the top words of 2021. Many words were chosen for their year-long popularity. Others “light fires in minds’ by making one think. Still others can indeed “wring tears for hardened hearts.” Some will drift away in a year or two, others may be used long after 2021 and 2022 are over.

 In November, published an article, “10 New Dating Words to Know in 2021.” I will mention here, six of those 10.

Fauci-ing means turning down a date because someone isn’t taking the pandemic seriously enough. It is named after Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Zombie-ing follows on to ghosting (when someone suddenly stops all contact with no explanation).

Also as new dating words are: Benching, when you hold a likely romantic partner on hold as a backup if you are otherwise stood up; and pocketing, keeping someone separate from other parts of your life, such as your career and relatives. I think the pocketed one in the relationship would get upset sooner than later, with the strange setup. Most of us would.

Breadcrumbing is talking with someone on social media and by text but never attempting to have a relationship with them or even meet you in person. They leave just enough of a social media trail to string you along. Breadcrumbing is a term similar to when birds leave droppings or indicators they are around. Follow the “crumbs” and you may eventually meet the bird or human leading you thru crumbs.

Oxford Languages announcement that “vax” was Word of the Year 2021 was not a surprise. “A relatively rare word in our corpus until this year, by September it was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year,” said the OUP. “It has generated numerous derivatives that we are now seeing in a wide range of informal contexts, from vax sites and vax cards to getting vaxed and being fully vaxxed.”

Pandemic was selected as Word of the Year 2020 in a lot of competitions. A word in 2021 that is listed as a popular new word is jab. A person who subscribes to a British magazine like The Economist, or listens to BBC broadcasts on National Public Radio, is familiar with the word “jab.” The word means “an injection with a hypodermic needle.”

Merriam-Webster had vaccine as it top word, based on online lookups. It jumped 535% in searches in August; also, 601% overall. “During this (hectic) period, New York and California instituted vaccine mandates for health care workers; a federal mandate was announced for nursing home staff … and full FDA approval for Pfizer’s vaccine was boosted,” Merriam explained.

Meanwhile, The American Dialect Society voted in “insurrection” as the Word of the Year for 2021. The event was by Zoom and more than 300 language mavens participated. It came on Jan. 6, the first anniversary of the tragic post-election events in Washington, DC. The Society recognized that vaccine was not the only word worthy of being Word of the Year.

“More than a year after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, the nation is still coming to grips with what happened,” said Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. “At the time, words like coup, sedition, and riot were used to describe the disturbing events at the Capitol, -insurrection — a violent attempt to take control of the government — is the one that many felt best encapsulates the threat to democracy experienced that day.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz got things backwards. He called the scene an insurrection when it was occurring, but pressed by Fox News a year later changed his terms to riot or attack. The Dialect Society calls it an insurrection but the junior senator from Texas now uses less descriptive terms. Cruz was at the Capitol when this happened, yet he forgets or tries to hide what really occurred. Tsk-tsk.

Other top words are: woke, “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially of racial and social justice); cicada, any of a family of homopterous insects with a stout body, wide blunt head  and large transparent wings”; and cisgender, “of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” After studying these Top Words, I await more astonishing words in 2022.

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 12 years.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here