Our Words of the Year 2021, and What They May Be Telling Us


Your words of 2021 are gathered. How did others describe the past pandemic year?


In my January 11th column on “My Word of the Year for 2021 is Instability. What’s Yours?”, our readers provided many word answers to my question, for which we are very grateful. I was especially curious to see how these words might compare to those you sent in for the first year of our pandemic, March 2020 to March 2021. The results of that first pandemic year were presented in a word cloud and discussed in a posting on March 28, 2021, titled “The Pandemic Project: Our Readers Describe the Year of COVID-19.” In both polls, responses came from a mixture of psychiatrists, other mental health professionals, the public, and patients. Some responders contributed to both polls, some only in 1 or the other.

One of the goals of both polls is that, psychologically speaking, when we name something, it usually provides some comfort in describing what we are dealing with, especially if it is unusual, stressful, or confusing. Of course, some of our reactions also reflect our personal histories and current social circumstances.

The First Pandemic Year Poll

In the first pandemic year poll, I chose the word BEWARE because I was thinking of March 15th being the Ides of March, the day when Julius Caesar was assassinated after ignoring the warning of a seer. My other choice was EGAD because its definition combined anger, affirmation, and the surprise of the period.

In the rest of our over 50 collected responses, 1 word stood out for being chosen 5 times: INTROSPECTION. That was followed by ENLIGHTENMENT, picked 3 times. Both of those words seemed to reflect the essence of psychiatry. Two words seemed striking by their omission: LOVE and ZOOM.

The 2021 Year Poll

What a difference almost a year makes! The only word that appeared in both polls is WHIPLASH. This time there was nary a word about introspection or enlightenment. Maybe enough thinking about this is enough. Rather, the words covered run the gamut of perspectives and emotions, suggesting that each of us was having a very unique reaction to the year. Although some of the words suggested that it was overall a positive year, the acronym FUBAR conveyed a more negative trend in the extreme: F’d Up Beyond All Recognition. LOVE and ZOOM were missing once again.

The Commentaries

Some readers provided detailed explanations for the word they chose without any suggestion to do so, and gave us permission to name them and publish their commentary. Here they are.

ACCEPTANCE: Michael Mantell explained his choice, which seems to sort of be a transitional word from last year to this one.

“Great article. As for my word for 2021 (2022) . . . if you want to test positive for peace and negative for ‘disturbability’ this year, I suggest my micro-compass, well anchored and firmly planted word, Acceptance.

Flexible, non-extreme, non-dogmatic, open-minded unconditional Acceptance will go a long way to prevent you from disturbing yourself about yourself, others, and your life.

While it may be preferable for something to—or not to—exist, it does not mean that it therefore ‘must’ be different. The principle of ‘emotional responsibility’ makes clear that life offers many opportunities for you to disturb yourself. How does doing so help you lead a more optimal life? Things may be unpleasant, and you can bear it, so what benefit comes to you from demanding, awfulizing, and convincing yourself that you cannot tolerate life, others, and yourself? ‘Must’ you truly have control over life when it deviates from how you would prefer it to be? Is it honestly awful and terrible if the outcome is not what you would have wished for, or is it only too bad?

Acceptance does not mean liking, condoning, or thinking something is good. It means recognizing that it exists. Perhaps considering the good inside of what happens may make that an easier experience. I believe, firmly, that what happens is for me, not to me. It is my job to search for the good and Acceptance helps fuel that voyage.

Adjusting constructively to adversity means building discomfort tolerance, which will in turn result in 2022 being a far healthier, more emotionally peaceful, and overall, more enjoyable experience.”

WOOBLY: Barry Marcus explains his choice of this unusual word for an unusual year.

“In a physical sense, in terms of chronic pain, dizziness, and imbalance as well as heart and gallbladder issues. Also in terms of looking to the end of my life in a societal sense related to the ‘alternative facts’ world we live in as well as the vulnerability of our democracy.

Woobly like a boxer who is reeling from a blow that almost floored him, yet through determination and resolve, is still standing.”

REMINDER: Out of a thousand plus words, Randall Levin chose this one and explains why.

“It was a reminder of the good that comes from the clear pathway to our inner strengths and spirit, as it was unfortunately a reminder of what has escaped from the pandora’s box and what it could still contain. It was a reminder to listen to the ‘warnings’ so that we are not taken by surprise. It was a reminder of how others have affected our life’s journeys when they are gone, to appreciate true connections in our social experiment.

It is a reminder of how we can all bring positive energy and love to not only others but to ourselves and our families. A reminder that a newborn grandchild (etc) may have that special piece of the spiritual puzzle that surrounds all of us (and our earth), has so much hope, love, and happiness to offer to those who themselves have a clear pathway to their own inner spiritual beauty. A reminder that their extra smile and laughter can light the way along our own journeys.”

The Conclusions

What these words, collected in an accompanying word cloud, and some commentaries, mean to me is that we have to keep in mind how individual the assessment of 2021 is, just like it is crucial to consider each patient as an individual even while using generic expert guidelines to diagnose and provide treatment. The message to the public might be to understand and empathize with our individuality and give everyone some slack in this challenging time.

Radical hope looks for contributing to a better year, and though we do not know how and when that may occur, we should do what we can to move in that direction. The content of the commentaries suggest ways to do so.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.

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