Special Report

Every Oxford ‘Word of the Year’ Since 2004

It sometimes feels as if a year can be summed up in a single word or a phrase. Depending on the year, it might signify a cultural or political phenomenon or preoccupation. It might be a brand new word, a combination of words, or an old word that has acquired new meanings. (These 10 words don’t mean what you think they do.)

24/7 Tempo has consulted the Oxford Languages Word of the Year report to compile a list of every word so designated since 2004, the first year the dictionary publisher began keeping a tally. The Oxford selections are made by a team of specialists, including lexicographers, dictionary consultants, and editorial staff. “Every year,” writes Oxford, “we debate candidates for word of the year and choose a winner that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.” 

In the list below, the primary definition of each word is drawn from the Oxford English Dictionary, the Oxford Languages website, or some other source associated with Oxford. In cases where no official definition is available, comments are made below in brackets. For seven of the eight years between 2005 and 2012, Oxford chose two words (or phrases) annually, one for the U.K. and one for the U.S. Both are given here.

The word of the year for 2021, perhaps inevitably, is “vax” – short for “vaccine” or “vaccinate.” That’s a hopeful sign, because vaccination has been proven by science to be the best way to contain a pandemic. “Climate emergency” was the phrase chosen in 2019, reflecting increased awareness and concern about global warming and other threats to the environment. “Toxic” was the word of the year for 2018. It’s an old word but has many current applications, ranging from “toxic environment” to “toxic relationship.”

Click here to see every Oxford “Word of the Year” since 2004

Some of the British words of the year never caught on in the U.S. Probably not many Americans know that a “chav” is a brash, loutish young person, whereas almost everybody in the U.K. does. (While we’re on the subject, Americans don’t often use the word “loutish” either.) Similarly, “bovvered” and “omnishambles” were on everybody’s lips in the U.K. in 2006 and 2012, respectively, but didn’t register in the U.S.  

Then there are words that reflect the global culture created by technology, including smartphones and social media. Among these were “podcast,” from 2005, and “selfie,” from 2013.  (Here are 30 words that didn’t exist 30 years ago.)