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A year of perseverance

Cambridge Dictionary Word of the Year 2021 

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Every minute around 5000 pages are being viewed by people looking up words and definitions on the Cambridge Dictionary website. That adds up to more than 2.6 billion page views a year by people all over the globe, making it the world’s most popular dictionary website for learners of English.  

As spoken and written English is constantly evolving, what people are looking up in our online dictionary is one of the tools we use to understand what’s changing and to spot any trends.  

Perseverance – Word of the Year 2021 

Our Word of the Year, perseverance, hasn’t figured noticeably in lookups on the Cambridge Dictionary website before 2021, but this year it has been more than 243,000 times.  

perseverance, the continued effort to do or achieve something, even when this is difficult or takes a long time  
Cambridge Dictionary  

This data-led approach makes our Word of the Year different to other dictionaries as the words chosen are based on lookup data from millions of users.  

The word perseverance encapsulates two major global events of 2021 – the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the exciting culmination of the NASA mission to Mars. Perseverance underlines the undaunted will of people across the world to never give up, despite the many challenges of 2021. As interest in NASA's Perseverance rover grew, so did searches for the word perseverance – there was a spike of 30487 searches for  between 19 – 25 February 2021 after the rover made its final descent to Mars on 18 February.  

“It made sense that lookups of perseverance spiked at this time,” says Wendalyn Nichols, Cambridge Dictionary Publishing Manager. “Perseverance is not a common word for students of English to have in their vocabulary. We often see spikes in lookups of words associated with current events when those words are less familiar.”  

In addition to this spike, over the following months, perseverance has continued to be looked up more frequently on the Cambridge Dictionary site than ever before – a fact that resonated with the Cambridge Dictionary team. Nichols notes, “Just as it takes perseverance to land a rover on Mars, it takes perseverance to face the challenges and disruption to our lives from Covid-19, climate disasters, political instability and conflict. We appreciated that connection, and we think Cambridge Dictionary fans do, too.”  

Further evidence that words looked up on Cambridge Dictionary often reflect current world events is that, in January 2021, searches for insurrection, impeachment, inauguration and acquit all spiked, as the world closely followed the US presidential election.  

The words chosen by the Dictionary team aren’t always new coinages (such as 2019’s upcycling or 2018’s nomophobia), but they all stand out for the way in which they reflect the zeitgeist – as did quarantine (2020), populism (2017), paranoia (2016), and austerity (2015).   

Hear personal stories of perseverance from celebrities including former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, British former Paralympian swimmer Ellie Simmonds, and actor and writer Ben Bailey Smith.

English language skills 

Research shows that many people learn new vocabulary more effectively when they have a record of it, so they can go back to study and test themselves. To go with our Word of the Year, we’ve curated a vocabulary list of words about being determined on Cambridge Dictionary +Plus so English language learners can easily find out more about the word of the year while simultaneously expanding their vocabulary. A new Cambridge Thesaurus article on perseverance explains the nuanced differences in meaning between perseverance, determination, persistence, doggedness, single-mindedness, tenacity, resolve, will, and the US term stick-to-it-iveness.  

How are new words added to the Cambridge Dictionary?  

The Cambridge Dictionary online comprises dictionaries for beginning, intermediate, and advanced learners, in British and American English, plus more than 20 other languages.   

“We monitor a wide range of sources for the new words and meanings that are added monthly to the online dictionary. We use traditional media, blogs and social media posts, and user lookups from the website itself,” says Cambridge Dictionary Editor, Rachel Fletcher. “It’s very important to us that the Cambridge Dictionary gives our users accurate and up-to-date information about how English is really used. We use our research and language expertise to give learners and teachers reliable, evidence-based information about the English language in a format and style that is tailored to their needs.”  

Rachel’s role as an editor involves organising the addition of new and revised entries to the Dictionary each month, as well as helping to plan new features, contributing to the Dictionary’s social media presence, and much more. “Every day is different,” she says. “Recently, I’ve been writing improved definitions for some older dictionary entries that needed to be revised to reflect current usage, making preparations for recording more audio files that will show our users the pronunciation of words, and creating more word lists for Cambridge Dictionary +Plus so that learners can test their vocabulary knowledge for a wider range of topics.”  

Find out more about how new words are added to the Cambridge Dictionary.

How is the Cambridge English Corpus used in the Dictionary?  

The Cambridge English Corpus is a multi-billion-word collection of written and spoken language, put together by Cambridge University Press. It is stored as an electronic database, which can be used to look at how language behaves. Even if we’re expert speakers of English, the way in which language is used isn’t always an easy thing to describe or explain. Language is nuanced, changeable, and varies from person to person. The project has been running for over twenty years, and more is added to the corpus on a rolling basis. If printed on paper and stacked, the Cambridge English Corpus would be almost as tall as the tallest building in the world.   

“We use the corpus to research language use, keep track of emerging new words and see how word meanings are changing.” says Rachel. “I can use the corpus to find collocations, patterns of words or phrases that are commonly used together. Learners of English can use this information to help them use English more idiomatically, and it can even help us recognise, for instance, if a word has strong positive or negative connotations. In the case of perseverance, we can see that it is often used with patience, and that a word frequently used to describe perseverance is dogged. Overall, the patterns associated with perseverance show that it is almost always seen as a positive quality.”  

Read more about what we learned from the corpus about what speakers and writers mean by perseverance, and in what contexts this word is typically used.