Words at Play
We Added New Words to the Dictionary for January 2021
An update of 520 new words, from ‘ASMR’ to ‘silver fox’
Language is a measure of culture, but also, in many ways, language can be a measure of time. The words we use—if they are new or relatively new—are the words we need to express and explain our world. If these words then also become widely used, it becomes the dictionary’s job to explain this use.
Among the new additions: coworking, hard pass, cancel culture, decarceration, and hygge.
Even More Coronavirus Words
Our last Merriam-Webster.com update included a number of terms brought to life, or to prominence, by COVID-19—including the word COVID-19 itself, which has the distinction of having gone from coinage to dictionary entry more quickly than any other word, in a mere 34 days.
As this update goes live, the pandemic continues to rage, and as it rages it continues to transform our world and our language. A few notable additions are new meanings relating specifically to the pandemic:
- Long hauler : a person who experiences one or more long-term effects following initial improvement or recovery from a serious illness (such as COVID-19)
- Pod and Bubble : 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. Bubble also gained an additional meaning: 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 and that includes accommodations, amenities, and the location at which the games are held
- Wet market : a market that sells perishable items (such as fresh meat and produce) and sometimes live animals which are often slaughtered on-site
Words from Online Communication
Digital human interaction has been a common mode of connection for decades now, but the isolation demanded by the pandemic, including social distancing, distance learning, and working from home, has made it essential. A number of terms relating to how we communicate online with one another are new additions:
- Reaction GIF : a GIF of someone or something (such as a celebrity or an animal) that is sent or posted in reply to something (such as a text message or a social media post or comment) and that typically depicts and expresses a reaction
- Digital blackface : 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
- Hard pass : a firm refusal or rejection of something (such as an offer)
- Performative disapproving : made or done for show (as to bolster one’s own image or make a positive impression on others)
- @ informal : to respond to, challenge, or disparage the claim or opinion of (someone) —usually used in the phrase don’t @ me
- Flex informal : an act of bragging or showing off
- Cancel culture : the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure
Words from New Ways of Working
The way we work, including both where and when we work, has changed in recent years, with the simultaneous influences of mobile technology and the so-called gig economy. Our connectedness has also changed the way we come together, whether to work or to raise funds.
- Makerspace : a communal public workshop in which makers can work on small personal projects
- Coworking : being, relating to, or working in a building where multiple tenants (such as entrepreneurs, start-ups, or nonprofits) rent working space (such as desks or offices) and have the use of communal facilities
- Crowdfunding : 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
- Gig worker : a person who works temporary jobs typically in the service sector as an independent contractor or freelancer
Words from Politics and the Justice System
As increased public attention has been drawn to the practices and policies of the American justice system, political will has followed, and terms formerly used in technical and academic contexts have become part of the broader national discourse.
- Decarceration : release from imprisonment also : the practice or policy of reducing the number of people subject to imprisonment
- Prison industrial complex : 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
Words About Identity
English has been expanding its terms of identity in recent decades, and several new additions demonstrate that this expansion is continuing. New words that fall under this category include serious terms primarily of self-identification as well as terms used more playfully:
- BIPOC (abbreviation) : Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Color
- Folx : folks —used especially to explicitly signal the inclusion of groups commonly marginalized
- Sapiosexual : of, relating to, or characterized by sexual or romantic attraction to highly intelligent people
- Silver fox : an attractive middle-aged man having mostly gray or white hair
Words of Comfort
In an indisputably stressful year for everyone—a year that, lest we forget, also brought us murder hornets (also a new addition)—we take comfort where we can. A few new terms connect us with pleasant and soothing sensations both physical and psychological:
- ASMR or autonomous sensory meridian response : 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
- Hygge : a cozy quality that makes a person feel content and comfortable
- Entheogen : 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
Words Looking to the Future
- Second Gentleman : the husband or male partner of a vice president or second in command of a country or jurisdiction
In concert with a new family’s arrival at Number One Observatory Circle, on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory, the term Second Gentleman has finally met our criteria for dictionary entry. Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Douglas Craig Emhoff, is the first Second Gentleman the United States has ever had. (Various states have and have had Second Gentlemen in the past.) The term is not new, but it’s finally common enough to have met our entry criteria.