• NFT has become Collins Dictionary's word of the year for 2021.
  • In essence, an NFT (the abbreviation for 'non-fungible token') is a chunk of digital data which records who a piece of digital artwork or a collectible belongs to.
  • Despite the buzz surrounding NFTs, it's difficult at this stage to predict their future.
  • Other words in the Collins Dictionary top 10 include topical terms such as 'climate anxiety' and 'double-vaxxed'.

NFT, the more commonly used abbreviated version of non-fungible token, is Collins Dictionary’s word of the year.

The use of the term, which has entered the mainstream lately, increased 11,000% in 2021.

Collins describes NFT as “a unique digital certificate, registered in a blockchain, that is used to record ownership of an asset such as an artwork or a collectible.” More simply put, “it’s a chunk of digital data that records who a piece of digital work belongs to,” author David Shariatmadari writes.

“It’s unusual for an abbreviation to experience such a meteoric rise in usage, but the data we have from the Collins Corpus reflects the remarkable ascendancy of the NFT in 2021,” says Collins Learning managing director Alex Beecroft. “NFTs seem to be everywhere, from the arts sections to the financial pages and in galleries and auction houses and across social media platforms. Whether the NFT will have a lasting influence is yet to be determined, but its sudden presence in conversations around the world makes it very clearly our word of the year.”

The rise of NFTs

The buzz around NFTs, which remain difficult to really define, has been unrelenting over the last 12 months.

They are grabbing headlines because they are raking in big bucks. In March, surrealist digital artist Beeple made history by selling an NFT of his piece Everydays: The First 5,000 Days—a collage of all the images he’d created since he committed in 2007 to making one every dayat Christie’s for a cool $69 million. NFTs for both the viral YouTube video Charlie Bit Me and meme art Nyan Cat sold for more than half a million dollars.

Moreover, entertainment kingpins are quickly embracing the new fad. Several celebrities, like filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan, professional wrestler John Cena, and rapper A$AP Rocky, among others, have lined up to release NFTs. Film studio Warner Bros has started rebuilding the Matrix franchise as NFTs. The 2021 Oscars swag bag even included an NFT tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman of Black Panther fame. And its use cases go further.

Unlike traditional art that circulates among the super wealthy, NFTs have become a democratic force to be reckoned with. “NFTs have opened the door for art buying and selling for the masses,” writes Motley Fool’s Nicholas Rossolillo.

The emerging industry has given a new lease of life to starving artists. “Five years ago, I was struggling to pay the mortgage,” Trevor Jones, a 51-year-old painter from Edinburgh who began making NFT art in 2019, told the Guardian. “I went from having to borrow money from friends to pay the bills to making $4 million in a day.”

Tech takes over covid

NFT is one of three tech-based words to make Collins’ longer list of ten words of the year. The others are metaverse—the concept Facebook steadfastly committed to, and even changed its name for—and crypto, the slang for cryptocurrency.

This year’s list is also inundated with pandemic vernacular, and there’s one word pertaining to the climate crisis—a fitting contender at the heels of COP26.

a chart showing the Collins Dictionary top ten words of the year 2021
NFT, relating to blockchain, is the top Collins Dictionary word of 2021.
Image: Chart: Quartz, Data: Collins Dictionary

What is the World Economic Forum doing about blockchain?

Blockchain is an early-stage technology that enables the decentralized and secure storage and transfer of information and value. Though the most well-known use case is cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, which enable the electronic transfer of funds without banking networks, blockchain can be applied to a wider range of purposes. It has potential to be a powerful tool for tracking goods, data, documentation and transactions. The applications are seemingly limitless; it could cut out intermediaries, potentially reduce corruption, increase trust and empower users. In this way, blockchain could be relevant to numerous industries.

That said, blockchain also entails significant trade-offs with respect to efficiency and scalability, and numerous risks that are increasingly coming to the attention of policy-makers. These include the use of cryptocurrency in ransomware attacks, fraud and illicit activity, and the energy consumption and environmental footprint of some blockchain networks. Consumer protection is also an important and often overlooked issue, with cryptocurrency, so-called “stablecoins” and decentralized applications operating on blockchain technology posing risks to end-users of lost funds and also risks to broader financial stability depending on adoption levels.

Read more about the work we have launched on blockchain and distributed ledger technologies – to ensure the technology is deployed responsibly and for the benefit of all. We’re working on accelerating the most impactful blockchain use cases, ranging from making supply chains more inclusive to making governments more transparent, as well as supporting central banks in exploring digital currencies.

Collins word of the year is a departure from its 2020 selection—lockdown—but for the Oxford Dictionary, the covid hangover continued as it declared “vax” the word of the year. Meanwhile, the Cambridge Dictionary made an out-of-this world choice with “perseverance” after a spike of searches—it was looked up more than 243,000 times this year—partially because of NASA’s Perseverance Rover making its final descent to Mars in February.