As another year draws to a close it’s time to look back at the words and phrases that marked 2021. The words we use often characterize the lives we lead, sometimes more accurately than a laundry list of news events.

Changes in language tell us what we are talking about, what we are doing, and ultimately what matters to us.

Collins Dictionary named “NFT” its top word of 2021. This initialism refers to “Non Fungible Token,” and applies to original digital images bought and sold as commodities.

NFTs seem contradictory. After all, they claim ironclad ownership of ethereal ones and zeros. You might wonder how that’s possible, considering that digital images have spread across the internet like aggressive bacteria — largely for free — these last three decades. However, investors are always looking for innovative ways to turn money into more money and somehow landed on this.

Several NFTs sold for millions of dollars this year. The actual artwork tends to resemble the weird $5 felt canvas pictures you find at summer swap meets. They’re not priced for their artistic merit so much as for their uniqueness and the digital security that ensures their originality.

In October, a new record for an NFT sale was reached when the “CryptoPunk” series, mostly a collection of pixilated faces, sold for $530 million. However, reports later revealed that the owner of the series sold it to themselves using cryptocurrency they borrowed from someone else. We’re not sure why, but the move seems indicative of the mysterious nature of NFTs and the people who create and trade them.

Speaking of cryptocurrency, the Collins Dictionary list names “crypto” as the second most significant word of 2021. Cryptocurrency exists on secure computer servers and can be traded like money with anyone who agrees that this sounds legit. Bitcoin stands as one of the premiere cryptocurrencies, but that’s only one of many.

The whole premise of cryptocurrency, and NFTs for that matter relies on the subjective notion of money. The currency and other tangible investments the world has come to know are controlled by governments, corporations, and other fallible institutions. If you get a real crypto advocate going they’ll tell you that the finite, limited nature of crypto currency promises stability.

You know, until the power goes out. Or until people decide that some other currency is more valuable. The crypto craze already proved that this can happen at any time.

The Los Angeles Staples Center announced just last month that it would be renamed the Crypto.com Center in 2022. Clearly, crypto is gaining relevence. Nevertheless, widespread knowledge that currency is, by its very nature, a sort of card trick might portend an eventual collapse.

So, I guess we’ve got that going for us.

There are as many opinions about words as there are lexicographers, which is to say, at least two or three. The Oxford Dictionary named “Vax” as its top word of 2021, bowing to the prevalence of the shorted version of “vaccine.” The availability of effective vaccines, and the hesitancy of many to take them, played a major role in American life this year and in the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dictionaries didn’t create words like “NFT” and “crypto,” or even “vax.” These words enter dictionaries because people use them. They tell the story of 2021: a tale of uncertainty and skepticism.

Perhaps next year’s top words will tell of the great achievements that vaccines and cryptocurrencies produce. Or, perhaps, it’s all just a little cheugy by then.

“Cheugy,” of course, is another of the Collins Dictionary top words. It means out of date or uncool. Words have a shelf life, just like Twinkies, cheese and, apparently, civilization.

Aaron J. Brown is a northern Minnesota author, radio producer, and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com. He’s working on a book about Victor Power called “Power in the Wilderness.” Contact him at aaronjbrown@yahoo.com.

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