There is one word that’s intertwined with so many of the things we’ve experienced in 2021: allyship, the 2021 Word of the Year according to Dictionary.com.
allyship (noun): the status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.
Dictionary.com states that allyship carries a special distinction this year: It marks the first time we’ve chosen a word that’s new to our dictionary as our Word of the Year.
The addition of the word allyship to our dictionary in 2021—not to mention our decision to elevate it as our top word for the year—captures important ways the word continues to evolve in our language and reflects its increased prominence in our discourse.
Allyship acts as a powerful prism through which to view the defining events and experiences of 2021—and, crucially, how the public processed them. It also serves as a compelling throughline for much of our lexicographical, editorial, and educational work across Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com this year.
The word allyship combines the noun ally, “a person who advocates for or supports a marginalized or politicized group but is not a member of the group,” and –ship, a noun-forming suffix here denoting “status, condition.”
This specific sense of the word ally is, notably, one Dictionary.com also updated this year. Developing out of the word’s general meaning of “supporter,” the application of ally in contexts of social justice is first evidenced as early as the 1940s in an article by Albert W. Hamilton on “allies on the front of racial justice” for Black people. The article, notably, features the term white allies, which has proliferated ever since. Another now-common term, straight allies—non-LGBTQ+ supporters of the LGBTQ+ community—dates back to at least the 1970s.
While the word allyship dates back to the mid-1800s, the word ally itself is much older in the English language. It’s first recorded around 1250–1300, ultimately coming into French from the Latin alligāre, “to bind together, combine, unite,” which is in turn based on ligāre, “to bind.” This Latin verb is the source of many other English words, including alloy, league, ligament, obligation, religion, and rely.
While newly added to our dictionary this year, allyship is, of course, not a new word in the English language. It’s first attested around 1850 in a broader sense of “the relationship or status of persons, groups, or nations associating and cooperating with one another for a common cause.” Its primary meaning today—when a person who is not a member of a marginalized group works for its inclusion in society—spread in the 1990s.
But use of the word allyship skyrocketed in the past 15 years. In fact, since 2011, frequency of the word, according to Dictionary.com’s data analyses from various corpora (big, searchable collections of texts), has surged an average of over 700%, including a steep rise in 2020 that continued into 2021. The word ally itself landed within the top 850 of the many thousands of search terms that led people to Dictionary.com this year.