Words of 2021

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 6 Jan 2022, 6:50 PM

Last updated: Fri 7 Jan 2022, 6:22 PM

We ended the year by looking at the Oxford English Dictionary’s anointing of “vax” as the Word of the Year 2021. But the OED, in the course of the year, also issues lists of words they have decided to include in their hallowed dictionary as having passed muster to be acceptable words in the English language. There are several dozens of these in 2021. In today’s column I will give you a small selection of what made the cut last year past the Oxford gatekeepers of the English language.

Some are clearly reflective of the changes in our lives, and, therefore, in our linguistic usage, in the Internet era:

doxing, n.: “The action or process of searching for and publishing private or identifying information about a particular individual on the Internet”.

gig economy, n.: “A labour market characterised by a prevalence of short-term contracts and freelance work, as distinct from permanent, full-time employment.”

livestreaming, n.: ““The action or process of broadcasting an event, etc., live over the Internet.”

Some acknowledge the way in which alternative lifestyles have found mainstream acceptance in the English-speaking world:

queerbaiting, n.: “The harassment, abuse, or targeted provocation of LGBT people.”

transphobe, n.: “A person who is hostile towards, prejudiced against, or fearful of transgender or transsexual people or of transgenderism; a transphobic person.”

Some come from non-Anglophone roots and reflect the involvement of non-Western cultures in speaking English, with the inclusion of words from other mother-tongues:

suhoor, n.: “The meal eaten before sunrise during Ramadan, when fasting begins; the occasion or time of such a meal. Cf. Iftar.”

ghoonghat, n.: “The practice observed by some married (chiefly Hindu) women of wearing a covering over the head or face.”

Many reflect terms that became politically important last year in the Western countries, whose usage of English remains dominant in the world:

virtue signalling, n.: “The action or practice of expressing one’s views or acting in a way thought to be motivated primarily by a wish to exhibit good character or social conscience.”

visible minority, n.: “An ethnic or racial group whose members are visibly distinguishable from those of the predominant ethnic or racial group in a society.”

zoomer, n.: “Originally and chiefly North American. Frequently with capital initial. A boomer who has now reached middle or retirement age.”

Then there are familiar words which have acquired new meanings last year that I was unaware of but the OED has decided to recognise:

wine, v.: “intransitive. Esp. of a woman: to dance with rhythmic gyratory movements of the hips and pelvis.”

Some are words are so widely used already that I was surprised that their official inclusion in the OED came so late. These include:

conflicted, adj.: “Esp. of emotions or feelings: incompatible or at odds; confused, contradictory. Also (in later use) of a person: having, displaying, or characterised by such feelings.”

chapstick, n.: “A proprietary name for: a small stick or tub of ointment that is applied to the lips to prevent or soothe soreness, dryness, and cracking.”

belly-dance, v.: “intransitive. To perform or engage in a belly dance.”

brown-nosing, n.: “Excessive or insincere flattery, esp. with the aim of gaining favour or advancement; toadying.”

foul-mouth, v.: “transitive. To abuse (a person) verbally; to insult, disparage, or slander (someone).”

ghostbuster, n.: “A person who investigates or deals with supposed paranormal activity or phenomena; spec. (originally) a sceptic who exposes bogus claims of ghosts.”

postpaid, adj.: “Paid, or paid for, after a transaction has taken place or a service has been rendered. Now: spec. relating to a mobile phone or Internet service…”

And finally, some inclusions are frankly silly:

wagwan, int.: “‘What’s going on?’ ‘What’s happening?’ Frequently used as an informal greeting.” (A sub-literate mangling of “what’s going on?” is not a word!)

womxn, n.: “Women. Also occasionally as singular: a woman.”(I’m as feminist as they come, but what’s sexist about the letter ‘e’ that’s improved by the letter ‘x’?)

whoo-ee, int.: “Used to attract attention, or to summon a person or animal. Also used to express various emotions or reactions, such as surprise, awe, excitement.” (Is every sound we make worthy of inclusion in a dictionary?)

zom-com, n.: “A comedy film featuring zombie characters.” (No comment).

Oxford Languages says its corpus, or language resource base, collects news content daily, regularly updates it and analyses it. Today, the OED corpus contains over 14.5 billion words for lexicographers to search and study. Clearly, a lot more neologisms will find their way into our language usage in 2022!


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