Words of the Year 2021
A list by John McWhorter, Jeffrey Eugenides, Emily Yoffe, Yascha Mounk, and Martin Eiermann
How do we sum up this fractious and virus-laden year? To round off 2021, Persuasion is proud to introduce a new “Words of the Year” annual feature, where we select the words, concepts, and phrases that—for good or for ill—defined the past twelve months.
The list was selected by a distinguished committee of Persuasion friends: Martin Eiermann, a sociologist and contributing editor at Persuasion; Jeffrey Eugenides, a best-selling novelist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguist and columnist for The New York Times; Yascha Mounk, Persuasion’s founder and editor-in-chief and a contributing writer at The Atlantic; and Emily Yoffe, a contributing writer at The Atlantic and former Slate columnist.
Long before the 2020 election, Donald Trump’s campaign planted the idea that if Joe Biden won, it would be the result of a conspiracy to steal the presidency. Since election day, and despite having been repeatedly and comprehensively debunked, the theory is endorsed by millions of Americans, and precipitated the attack on the Capitol on January 6th.
The idea of a “Big Steal” continues to exert an enormous influence over public debate in the lead up to elections in 2022 and 2024. It has grown into a totalizing worldview among Trumpists—both a rallying cry to be carried forward into future elections, and a purity test for Republicans whose future in the party is increasingly judged by their willingness to endorse the idea that Biden stole the 2020 election from Trump.
You know you do it—you can’t help yourself. Endlessly scrolling through social media feeds in a seemingly bottomless pit of bad news and bad faith. This has a new name: “Doomscrolling.”
As an activity, Doomscrolling can be cathartic, even reassuring. But all too often it can degenerate into doom-mongering: relentlessly seeking out the worst about one’s political opponents, which reinforces the notion that they are taking us to hell.
Days before the 2020 presidential election, Kamala Harris tweeted an infographic explaining the difference between “equality” and “equity.” The video, drawing on a popular new understanding of “equity”, argued that in contrast to equal treatment, “equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place.”
In 2021, this understanding of “equity” drew ever closer to displacing “equality” as the purpose of social justice: Some educational institutions abolished grade and testing requirements when tests produce unequal outcomes, while the administration’s American Rescue Plan prioritized certain stimulus spending for minority-owned businesses.
“Equity” is unlikely to disappear from our vocabulary any time soon. 2021 was the year this rising concept became fully integrated into America’s conversation about race.
The word “illiberal” seems to have been settled on as the most useful way to describe the worldwide erosion of liberal norms and institutions.
The growing strength of “illiberal democracies” continues unabated with a deepening of the global democratic recession. From Europe to Africa to Asia, authoritarianism and intolerance are on the rise. At home, the word “illiberal” describes legislators using novel legal mechanisms to undermine the neutral certification of elections, as well as the uptick in attempts to ban unfavored ideas in classrooms.
It has also helped heterodox individuals stake out a position within particularly fraught debates on the left. People who disagree with certain recent ideas about race, but who are not against learning and teaching about racism, increasingly use “illiberal” to identify the growing censoriousness, conformity, and coercion that characterizes these debates.
Political violence deeply impacted national life in 2021, most notably during the January 6th assault on the Capitol.
At the same time, the term “violence” acquired a new meaning on the political left. There is the idea that speech or policy can constitute violence, while phrases such as “silence is violence” suggest that the absence of speech can also be a violent act. This amounts to an increasing erosion of the separation between emotional or economic harm and physical violence.
The term “woke” has undergone a rapid evolution in the past few years. Previously it was embraced by progressives. But in 2021, with debates about “wokeness” raging in America, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed that the only people seriously using the word “woke” are Fox News pundits and the elderly.
“Woke” originated in the mid-twentieth century as African American vernacular to describe a state of being awake to injustice. By the end of the 2010s it had displaced “political correctness,” a term that enjoyed a multi-decade run but was due for a replacement, in everyday speech. It accrued new connotations, referring to an evolving set of ideas on the left regarding identity, privilege, and oppression.
This year, “woke” lay at the heart of current debates, with Americans disagreeing on whether woke ideas help or harm minorities. No other word quite evokes the fraught cultural reckoning America has experienced over the past twelve months.
The idea of “adjacency” has emerged to describe the relationship individuals have with identity groups.
On the one hand, referring to a person as “adjacent” to a minority community is an acknowledgment that groups have intermediate members—people who share a background, experience, or affinity but without full membership in a community. Where someone in the 1970s may have called themselves or others “gay positive,” for example, now terms such as “gay [or LGBT]-adjacent” are coming into fashion to denote allegiance and unity.
On the other hand, this word is also used in a derogatory way. There is the emerging idea that Asian Americans are “white-adjacent,” on the assumption that success is inherently “white,” so the accomplishments of Asian Americans must be explained away.
The variety of positive and negative associations attached to it suggest that the concept of “adjacency” is still rapidly evolving. This makes it one to watch closely in 2022.
Persuasion would like to thank the committee for their work drawing up the shortlist and compiling this feature.