‘Allyship’ Chosen as 2021 ‘Word of the Year’ by Dictionary.com

Regular visitors to Fair360, formerly DiversityInc likely know the definition of the word allyship well. The term is defined as “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.” The term also epitomizes what we stand for as a company in the diversity and inclusion space.

Search trends indicate more and more people in the broader world are accepting the idea of allyship as well — so much so that Dictionary.com has designated “allyship” as word of the year for 2021.

Leanne Italie of the Associated Press reported that “the look-up site with 70 million monthly users took the unusual step of anointing a word it added just last month.”

In an interview with the AP, John Kelly, associate director of content and education at Dictionary.com, said allyship’s recent inclusion might be surprising to some considering the word first surfaced in the mid-1800s. 

“In the past few decades, the term has evolved to take on a more nuanced and specific meaning. It is continuing to evolve, and we saw that in many ways,” Kelly said.

According to Italie, the site chose allyship as its word of the year “following the summer of 2020 and the death of George Floyd, [when] white allies — and the word allyship — proliferated as racial justice demonstrations spread. Before that, straight allies joined the causes of LGBTQ oppression, discrimination and marginalization.”

Kelly said that the concept of allyship continued to spread outside of individuals and more broadly into Corporate America in 2021.

“This year, we saw a lot of businesses and organizations very prominently, publicly, beginning efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion,” he said. “Allyship is tied to that. In the classroom, there is a flashpoint around the term critical race theory. Allyship connects with this as well.”

In a tangential relationship, the term “allyship” also gained prominence during the pandemic as the public supported teachers, frontline workers and health care workers who regularly put themselves in harm’s way while the rest of us were under lockdown.

Kelly explained that while “allyship” wasn’t even added to Dictionary.com until earlier this fall, the site saw massive spikes in people looking up related terms like “ally” and “alliance.” In a nod to our own work, the acronym “DEI” (diversity, equity and inclusion) was also added to the site this fall and has been one of its most searched terms.

As for where the term originated, Italie reported that “Kelly did some additional digging into the history of allyship in its social justice sense. While the Oxford English Dictionary dates that use of the word to the 1970s, Kelly found a text, Allies of the Negro by Albert W. Hamilton, published in 1943. It discusses extensively the potential allies of Black people in the struggle for racial equality.”

In one passage from the book, Hamilton writes: “What some white liberals are beginning to realize is that they better begin to seek the Negro as an ally. The new way of life sought by the liberal will be a sham without the racial equality the Negro seeks. And the inclusion of the Negro in the day-to-day work, in the organization, the leadership and the rallying of the support necessary to win a better world, can only be done on the basis of equality.”

Dictionary.com isn’t the only company out there to select its own “word of the year.” Most leading Dictionary brands do as well. And this year, the majority continued to focus on the pandemic. The Oxford English Dictionary chose “vax” while Merriam-Webster went with “vaccine” for its selection.

In a left-field selection, the Scotland-based Collins Dictionary went high-tech and chose “NFT” — or “non-fungible token” (those digital collector’s items that sell for big bucks and that no one really seems to understand) — as its word of the year for 2021.


Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here.