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5 Words to look out for in 2021

The English language has evolved this year, global events have opened the door to new words, and the modification of old vocabulary. Throughout 2020, pandemic related vocabulary was on the tip of all our tongues, and key events such as the Australian bushfires and the US election saw us using more words related to the environment and politics.

As we bid a not-so-fond farewell to 2020 and say hello to 2021, here are our top 5 words to look out for, along with their meanings.

  1. Post-

Here’s hoping that 2021 will be ‘the year after’, and that at least some of the troubles of the previous 12 months will be behind us. And the prefix ‘post-’ may come in handy when talking about events this year, as we find a way to refer to this new period while acknowledging the impact of events and experiences of the recent past.

This useful little set of letters can be put in front of nouns to talk about the period after something, for example ‘post-lockdown’, ‘post-Covid’ and ‘post-2020’ are all making appearances in our latest corpus of spoken and written English.

Have you come across any other examples of ‘post-’ used like this?

  1. Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is bound to be on many employers’ lips this year as diversity and inclusion continues to be a hot topic. But what does it mean?

Neurodiversity refers to the range of differences in brain function and personality traits among all humans and promotes the concept that atypical ways of thinking and behaving, such as those evidenced in conditions such as autistic spectrum disorders, dyslexia and ADHD, are just part of the normal range of human thought and behaviour.

For employers and other organizations, this means valuing people for their individual strengths, rather than expecting everyone to behave and perform in the same way.

  1. Net Zero

Environmental concerns are on everyone’s minds, with climate issues becoming ever more urgent. While we all strive to do more to lessen our carbon footprint, businesses and governments are also making commitments.

One such promise is to reach net zero carbon emissions, and governments are setting targets to work towards. Net zero means achieving a balance between emissions that are produced and those that are removed from the atmosphere.

Many things will contribute to achieving net zero emissions, including electric cars, cleaner electricity, a reduction in the consumption of meat and dairy, and the planting of new trees, so we can all contribute to a greener future.

  1. In-person

A retronym is a new name given to something that has existed for a long time, in order to show that it is different from a more modern development. Today we talk about ‘silent movies’ and ‘landline phones’ when in days gone by these were just ‘movies’ and ‘phones’.

2020 was the year when we did everything remotely – meetings, job interviews, even birthday parties were all done virtually through our computers and mobile devices. As the year progressed this truly became ‘the new normal’. So much so that ‘in-person’ is now often used as an adjective to make clear that an event is to be conducted face to face rather than on screen.

We can see lots of examples on our newest corpus, such as ‘in-person learning’, ‘in-person talks’ and ‘an in-person experience’. Will we continue to make this distinction, or will the old normal be restored and the distinction no longer be necessary?

  1. Vaccine

Already in the news at the end of 2020, the new coronavirus vaccines will continue to be a major talking point in the coming months, giving us all hope for a brighter 2021. Did you know that the word vaccine comes from the Latin vaccinus, which in turn comes from vacca meaning ‘cow’, because of the early use of the cowpox virus against smallpox?

More recently, ‘anti-vaxxer’ is used to describe someone who is opposed to vaccination, and we may see new expressions being coined with the advent of mass vaccination programs.

Are there any other words you think might be popular in the coming year?

The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries team will be watching and listening out for any other new words and phrases that pop up next year, so watch this space for updates! The 5 words for 2021 were chosen by editors of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, which is available for free at

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