25 New Words Added to the Dictionary for 2021
Word nerds, unite! Merriam-Webster added more than 500 definitions to the dictionary this year. Which one is your favorite?
In January 2021, Merriam-Webster added 520 new words and definitions to the dictionary. That’s hundreds of words and phrases that have reached enough popularity to fall under the umbrella of common usage and that have gone through an official process before being given the dictionary’s stamp of approval. (In case you were wondering, there’s a whole process to get a word removed from the dictionary, too.) These additions reflect just how much the English language keeps growing and changing. “Language is a measure of culture, but also, in many ways, language can be a measure of time,” explains Peter Sokolowski, the Editor at Large for Merriam-Webster. “When enough of us use these words to communicate, it becomes the dictionary’s job to catalog them and report on how they are used.”
So, what kinds of words are now part of our lexicon? The dictionary’s latest list reflects everything from pandemic-related phrases and slang words to a few “old” words you won’t believe weren’t included years ago. Here are 25 that we think made the biggest impact or otherwise captured our attention.
For years, the acronym POC was used to refer to “People of Color.” BIPOC—”Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Color”—picked up major steam in 2020. You probably saw the term on your social media channels and read it in the news during the protests that surged after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in May 2020.
BIPOC is an important example of how language evolves. Rather than lumping several groups into a single descriptor like POC, you can use BIPOC to acknowledge the diversity of experiences. Want to use it in a sentence? How about this one from our story on whether you might be unintentionally perpetuating microaggressions at work: “Even when we’re well-meaning, as employees and employers we might at times make assumptions about our BIPOC colleagues.”
“Who among us didn’t want to give the year 2020 a hard pass?” asks Merriam-Webster’s senior editor Emily Brewster. A hard pass is a compound term that expresses a concept: “a firm refusal or rejection of something (such as an offer).” First coined online in 2014, hard pass has made the rounds on social media. “Useful when a wry rejection is called for, I can’t help but feel like it’s a unifying term,” Brewster says. Check out these 15 words and phrases that perfectly defined 2020.
Merriam-Webster defines this term as “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure.” Canceling someone or something is essentially erasing them from your life, removing your stamp of approval from their behavior, or drawing attention to the fact that you’re no longer supporting them. For instance, fans might “cancel” a celebrity in reaction to the star’s cultural appropriation or use of a racial slur. When an icon is “canceled” en masse, they lose hundreds of thousands of fans and followers, stalling or eviscerating their career.
Cancel culture refers to the practice as a whole.
You know that feeling of snuggling up on the couch in front of a flickering fire? Or wearing your favorite slippers while drinking hot tea? Well, there’s a name for that: hygge.
“I find the word hygge to be utterly charming,” Brewster says. “It’s a word that does a job in a foreign language (in this case Danish and Norwegian) that no English word does. Until, of course, English adopts it and makes it its own—as is the language’s long-standing habit. In the bleakest days of winter, I also take comfort in the very existence of a word that means ‘a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable.'” Here are 10 common words you’ll only find in English.
If you’re bragging to your friends about the $1,000 you just dropped on a pair of socks, don’t be surprised to hear this comeback: “Weird flex, but OK.” Basically, that means you’re bragging about something odd or questionable. This year, Merriam-Webster gave the word flex a new informal definition based on Internet slang: “an act of bragging or showing off.” Here are 9 more things you should really stop bragging about.
COVID-19 has changed the English language forever. Though long hauler can be used to refer to someone experiencing the after-effects of any serious illness, the term skyrocketed from medical jargon to popular culture in the middle of the 2020 pandemic. Merriam-Webster defines the phrase as “a person who experiences one or more long-term effects following initial improvement or recovery from a serious illness (such as COVID-19).” Read these stories from long haulers and others who’ve had coronavirus—and find out what they want you to know.
Here’s an example of an old word gaining new meaning. Pod has long referred to vegetables (pea pods!) and social groups of whales (look at that orca pod swim!). As of January 2021, it is also defined as “a usually small group of people (such as family members, friends, coworkers, or classmates) who regularly interact closely with one another but with few or no others in order to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection during an outbreak of a contagious disease.” It’s a lengthy definition with a simple premise: To stop the spread of COVID-19, mask up and social distance when you’re with anyone outside your pod. These 20 photos really define the era of social distancing.
Like pod, bubble got a new meaning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “an area within which sports teams stay isolated from the general public during a series of scheduled games so as to prevent exposure to disease.” The bubble includes everything from the team’s lodging to the sports arena itself. Not famous enough to get a bubble of your own? Here’s how to keep from getting COVID-19 at the gym.
On Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day podcast, the hosts emphasize that words and phrases are added to the dictionary only after they’ve reached a certain level of usage. Sometimes words circulate for years before they earn a spot in Merriam-Webster’s pages. That’s the case for wet market, defined as “a market that sells perishable items (such as fresh meat and produce) and sometimes live animals which are often slaughtered on-site.” It picked up steam early last year when scientists were researching the start of the coronavirus and found a group of infected people who all had a connection to a Wuhan wet market, where live bats were sold as food. We now know that it does not spread through food, but there are still many coronavirus mysteries that can’t be explained.
Digital blackface is the latest iteration of cringey cultural appropriation. Merriam-Webster describes it as “the use by White people of digital depictions of Black or Brown people or skin tones especially for the purpose of self-representation or self-expression.” The Berkeley Library reports that when non-Black people use gifs and images of Black people to convey their own emotions, it is “intentionally or not, perpetuating harmful stereotypes.” So if you’re not Black, pause the next time you’re tempted to send a funny reaction gif or meme depicting a Black person. There’s danger in stereotypes, and digital blackface might be, as OneZero reports, “more problematic than you think.”
Sokolowski says this new definition was initially difficult to pin down. “It shifted from a very specific and technical meaning in linguistics to a much broader general use that seems so transparent in meaning that it’s surprising that the new meaning, the disapproving ‘done for show,’ is so recent,” he explains. The new, nuanced definition of performative is typically attached to an action that’s obviously done only to make a positive impression on others. So, sending a bouquet of roses to the boss you despise? Generous, sure, but also performative. The same goes for slapping a Black Lives Matter sticker on your laptop but never using your words or actions to combat racism.
Here’s an example of a social media term that has made it into mainstream conversations. On Twitter, one person can tag someone else by using the sign @ before their username. The phrase “Don’t @ me” indicates that the person doesn’t want to be tagged or dragged into the conversation. Over time, this has come to be tacked onto potentially controversial opinions. For example, you might write, “Let’s be honest: Tom Brady just isn’t as good as he used to be. Don’t @ me.” Now, Merriam-Webster defines @ as an informal way of “responding to, challenging, or disparaging the claim or opinion of (someone)—usually used in the phrase don’t @ me.”
“I love seeing the verb use of ‘@’ now in the dictionary,” Sokolowski says. “Unlike other symbols, like ampersand or hashtag or even dollar sign, it needs to stand for itself instead of being spelled out in letters. It’s the language evolving right before our eyes.” Next, discover 23 new slang words from 2020.
In 2015, the Washington Post reported that the United States is more likely than any other country to lock people up. From the school-to-prison pipeline to overcrowded jails during a pandemic, the American criminal justice system is far from perfect. Activists, journalists, and other thought leaders have pushed for decarceration, defined as “release from imprisonment” or “the practice or policy of reducing the number of people subject to imprisonment.” By the way, this is the difference between a jail and a prison.
Have you ever taken a cake-decorating class at your local craft store? Or maybe you’ve joined the scrapbooking club at the community center? Well, there’s a word for those places: makerspaces! Merriam-Webster defines the term as “a communal public workshop in which makers can work on small personal projects.” A makerspace is like an art studio for the whole community. Most makerspaces cater to hobbyists rather than professional artists.
Coworking—”working in a building where multiple tenants (such as entrepreneurs, start-ups, or nonprofits) rent working space and have the use of communal facilities”—is nothing new. But remember, a word or phrase needs to reach a certain level of usage or circulation before it gets added to Merriam-Webster. Let’s use this one in a sentence: In 2020, many people were forced to leave their offices and coworking spaces to social distance from people outside their pod.
Like coworking, this one is a compound word made up of two familiar words. Merriam-Webster defines crowdfunding as “the practice of obtaining needed funding (as for a new business) by soliciting contributions from a large number of people especially from the online community.” Popular crowdfunding platforms include Kickstarter (for businesses) and GoFundMe (for fundraisers and individual assistance). Believe it or not, these weird Kickstarter projects actually got funded.
What do freelance writers, Uber drivers, and artists all have in common? They’re gig workers, of course! Merriam-Webster defines the phrase as “a person who works temporary jobs typically in the service sector as an independent contractor or freelancer.” This broad term refers to anyone who makes an income from project to project rather than on a steady salaried or employed basis. Even Airbnb owners could consider themselves part of the gig economy. If you enjoy these new dictionary additions, check out these 13 words from the first dictionary that no longer exist.
Prison industrial complex
Making a profit off of imprisonment is nothing new. But the term prison industrial complex gives the whole industry and its problems a name (at least in the dictionary). Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it: “the profit-driven relationship between the government, the private companies that build, manage, supply, and service prisons, and related groups (such as prison industry unions and lobbyists) regarded as the cause of increased incarceration rates especially of poor people and minorities and often for nonviolent crimes.” It’s a complicated definition because it’s a complicated system. The prison industrial complex (PIC) references government, business, and all other entities that have made imprisonment, policing, and criminal justice a profitable industry.
If you know what a psychedelic drug is, then you know what an entheogen is. They’re one and the same. According to Merriam-Webster, an entheogen is “a psychoactive, hallucinogenic substance or preparation (such as psilocybin or ayahuasca) especially when derived from plants or fungi and used in religious, spiritual, or ritualistic contexts.” Entheogens are popular in hippie havens, music festivals, and some spiritual retreats. Looking for more trippy trivia? Here are 50 things you didn’t know about Woodstock.
Here’s a term for word nerds. A sapiosexual is “characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to highly intelligent people.” Sokolowski says, “I like sapiosexual because it seems to symbolize as a word what it stands for: Using the Latin sapio-, meaning ‘wise’ or ‘smart,’ makes it a word that only word nerds would understand anyway. They speak to each other in their own language, perhaps.” To boost your chances with the sapiosexuals in the room, study up on these 20 words that are their own opposites.
Folx isn’t so much a new word as a new way to spell an old word. The definition is “folks—used especially to explicitly signal the inclusion of groups commonly marginalized.” Brewster says folx was tough to define because it only exists in written form. “The word folx at first glance is simply a variant spelling of folks. But an examination of its contextual use—the basis of all our defining—reveals that it is applied with an important connotation that subtly distinguishes it from its synonymous parent word. Both words are inclusive; they both commonly refer to people generally. But folx uniquely signals an explicit inclusion of people who are commonly marginalized. The word is also very interesting in that it effectively exists only in written language, as it in speech is completely indistinguishable from folks.”
This term proves that pop culture is finally embracing gray hair. Merriam-Webster defines a silver fox as “an attractive middle-aged man having mostly gray or white hair.” The phrase is usually bestowed by others as a compliment. For instance: George Clooney is such a silver fox!
Another term for men was finally made official this year. Of course, the United States now has a Second Gentleman: Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband, Douglas Craig Emhoff. The phrase isn’t entirely new because some states have had Second Gentlemen already, but it was finally circulated enough to meet Merriam-Webster’s entry criteria. Here’s the official definition: “the husband or male partner of a vice president or second in command of a country or jurisdiction.” Don’t miss these 15 inspiring Kamala Harris quotes.
How did this word take so long to land in the pages of Merriam-Webster? Maybe it’s just because the original Jedi warriors were in a galaxy far, far away. Regardless, it’s officially in the pages with a newly broadened definition for 2021: “a person who shows extraordinary skill or expertise in a specified field or endeavor.” Whether you’re a Jedi master who expertly balances good and evil or just an earthling Jedi who excels at sports or video games, here are the Star Wars quotes you should definitely know by heart.
Have you ever had tingly, soothing response to crinkling paper, sand falling through an hourglass, or a stranger whispering? You’re not the only one. ASMR—an acronym that stands for autonomous sensory meridian response—is “a pleasant tingling sensation that originates on the back of the scalp and often spreads to the neck and upper spine, that occurs in some people in response to a stimulus (such as a particular kind of sound or movement), and that tends to have a calming effect.” ASMR has become a popular topic of YouTube channels and even niche soundtracks. It’s similar to why so many people love watching pimple-popping videos.