Words of the Year

By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 30 2021
Columns Words of the Year

By Michael Gregson

Out and about in Colombo, you don’t hear a lot about NFT – but apparently that abbreviation beat ‘cheugy’ to become the English word of the year. 

If that sounds like double Dutch, you are probably past the first flush of youth and can remember the pre-internet age. But, according to Collins Dictionary, the abbreviation of non-fungible token has seen a ‘meteoric’ rise in usage over the last year, up by 11,000 

per cent. 

Glasgow-based Collins, which has been in the dictionary business for almost 200 years, defines NFT as “a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible”. 

The dictionary’s lexicographers monitor a massive database known as Collins Corpus, which contains 4.5 billion words, to choose their word of the year. They say they went for NFT because it demonstrates a ‘unique technicolour collision of art, technology and commerce’ that has ‘broken through the COVID noise’ to become ubiquitous. 

“It’s unusual for an abbreviation to experience such a meteoric rise in usage, but the data we have from the Collins Corpus reflects the remarkable ascendancy of the NFT in 2021,” said Collins Learning managing director Alex Beecroft. “NFTs seem to be everywhere, from the arts sections to the financial pages and in galleries and auction houses and across social media platforms. Whether the NFT will have a lasting influence is yet to be determined, but its sudden presence in conversations around the world makes it very clearly our word of the year.” 

Most people didn’t know what an NFT was until this year, when sales boomed, sparked in large part by artist Beeple’s March auction of a digital collage NFT for nearly $70 million. Other highlights include Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey selling an NFT of his first tweet for $2.9 million and electronic musician Grimes selling $6 million worth for her digital art. 

The  digital revolution is also captured in another of the dictionary’s candidates for Word of the Year: ‘crypto,’ short for ‘cryptocurrency,’ digital money that is challenging traditional forms of money, according to Collins. It also named ‘metaverse’, following Facebook’s announcement that it would change its corporate name to Meta.

Other selected words reflect the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, with ‘double-vaxxed’ and ‘hybrid working’ making the shortlist.

‘Climate anxiety’ reflects growing concern about the damage humans are doing to the planet, while ‘neopronoun’ is a way of referring to a person without using their name or traditional markers of gender, such as ‘he’ and ‘she’ Collins gives ‘xe,’ ‘ze’ and ‘ve’ as examples of neopronouns.

Rounding out the shortlist are ‘Regencycore,’ which is defined as a fashion aesthetic inspired by the Georgian-era clothing seen in the Netflix show ‘Bridgerton,’ and ‘cheugy,’ which is used to say that something is out of date or uncool. Rather as my children would describe me. 

Meanwhile, the company that produces the Oxford English Dictionary chose vax as it’s word of the year. Oxford Languages says that in September usage of the word vax was up more than 72 times from its level last year. The word, and others related to vaccination, had also been broadened into a wider range of contexts including “fully vaxxed” and “vax cards”. 

Casper Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Languages, said: “When reviewing the language evidence, vax stood out as an obvious choice. The word’s dramatic spike in usage caught our attention first. Then we ran the analysis and a story started to emerge, revealing how vax sat at the centre of our preoccupations this year.

“The evidence was everywhere, from dating apps (vax 4 vax) and pent-up frustrations (hot vax summer) to academic calendars (vaxx to school) and bureaucratic operations (vax pass). In monopolising our discourse, it’s clear the language of vaccines is changing how we talk – and think – about public health, community and ourselves.”

The dictionary publisher assessed the frequency in use of the word by looking at news content from around the world.

The report said: “For lexicographers, it is rare to observe a single topic impact language so dramatically, and in such a short period of time become a critical part of our everyday communication. 

The notion of vaccines has been in the English language since the late 1790s, around the time Edward Jenner found that cowpox could be used as a vaccine against the deadly smallpox virus.


By Michael Gregson | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 30 2021

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