The 2021 Terms of the Year

Cryptographic assets, inflation, and tax policies held the public's focus

2021 will be remembered for the persistence of the pandemic, the spike in consumer prices, the meteoric rise of digital assets, political turmoil over tax policies, and the end of a prolonged high-profile legal battle.

Each year at Investopedia, we look back at the most popular financial terms that captured our readers' attention over the past 12 months. With more than 20 million monthly readers and over 25 thousand articles on our site, we have a front-row seat to the topics and terms that drove the most interest in 2021. Our data science team identified which topics and terms had the most notable spikes in readers over the past 12 months and broke down their interest, month-by-month, in the following chart.

1. Capital Gains Tax

Our most popular term of the year in terms of consistent interest and overall traffic reflected both concerns about the possibility of higher taxes for wealthy Americans and the profits many homeowners, investors, and traders reaped from selling assets that soared in value.

As part of the American Families Plan fact sheet released on April 28, 2021, President Joe Biden proposed eliminating several tax breaks and loopholes that only serve to benefit high-net-worth individuals (HWNIs). Specifically, long-term capital gains would be taxed as ordinary income tax for taxpayers with taxable income above $1 million, while the top marginal income tax rate would be increased to 39.6%.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, also proposed the Billionaires Income Tax, that would tax billionaires or individuals earning more than $100 million a year for three consecutive years on their realized and unrealized capital gains. That proposal and the Biden administration's proposals for raising taxes on the wealthy have yet to pass, and they are still being negotiated on Capitol Hill. But the drumbeat around higher capital gains taxes has been beating loudly all year.

Interest in capital gains tax was not limited to politics, however. Profit-taking from the sale of assets, whether they were homes, stocks—especially meme stocks—cryptocurrencies, or non-fungible tokens, are taxable events, and millions of readers came to Investopedia to see just how much of their profits would be taxed.

2. Fiat Money

The widespread adoption of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in 2021, in addition to their wild swings in prices, brought millions of readers to Investopedia to learn the difference between digital tokens on a decentralized network and legal tender backed by a government, also known as fiat money.

In addition, August of this 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. dollar becoming a fiat currency following the end of the gold standard in 1971.

On a related note, in September of this year, El Salvador became the first country on Earth to accept bitcoin as legal tender, fueling speculations that cryptocurrencies may someday replace fiat money.

3. Inflation

Economic inflation certainly isn't a new concept, but 2021 has been a particularly unique year for it around the world and in the U.S. As measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), the annual inflation rate has risen significantly since January, when it was originally less than 1.4% year-over-year (YOY). In November, it exceeded 6.8% YOY, which is the highest increase in nearly four decades.

A surge in prices was not unexpected given the reopening of economies around the world, but the dramatic rise in prices for everything from gasoline to groceries has driven consumer sentiment to decade lows.

The Federal Reserve used to use the word "transient" when referring to inflation throughout the year, implying that it would only last for a few months. But it has since dropped that word as consumer and producer prices have remained at elevated levels for several months. The big question for investors is how will the Federal Reserve cool down a red-hot economy? The answer is likely by raising interest rates sooner than many have anticipated.

In addition to being one of the most popular Investopedia terms by search volume, "inflation" was also Investopedia's readers pick for the top term of 2021.

4. HODL

The spike in search volume of HODL compared to last year is a testament to the influence of the millions of new traders who joined the crypto and stock market in 2021 and the online trading forums they populated. The term itself originated in 2013 with a post to the bitcointalk forum, wherein an intoxicated user by the name of GameKyuubi explained inexperienced traders are more likely to lose money by trying to time the market and are better off "hodling" their coin.

The misspelling quickly became an Internet meme before being adopted as a legitimate trading strategy by cryptocurrency enthusiasts. Meme-stock traders also adopted the term and the strategy, especially those who were passionate about some of the most popular stocks like AMC Entertainment and GameStop.

5. Child Tax Credit

Although the child tax credit has been around since 1997, a series of temporary changes to the program were enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 that essentially transformed it into a near-universal monthly child allowance. Starting July 15, 2021, eligible parents began automatically receiving monthly payments of $250 or $300 per child.

This expansion is set to end in January 2022. President Biden's Build Back Better plan has called for extending the current system for years to come, and congressional Democrats are warning of "disaster" in the event of an abrupt cutoff in payments.

The advanced monthly credit has reached the families of 61 million children in the U.S, according to Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen on Nov. 29, 2021.

6. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) Criteria

Interest in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) criteria continued to grow throughout 2021, extending a multi-year trend. Not only was ESG one of our most popular terms of 2021, it was consistently among the most popular, month-to-month. Assets in ESG-related funds topped $330 billion as of September, and that is only expected to increase in the coming years.

Investors may have been moved to learn more about ESG given the devastating impacts of climate-related disasters in 2021, as well as social justice movements in the U.S. and around the world.

In addition, there has been a lot of confusion and backlash across the finance industry about the ESG label and what it really means for investors and companies. Investopedia and Treehugger conducted a survey in the summer of 2021 that revealed most investors who want to invest following their social and environmental beliefs had little understanding of how ESG ratings work and what they actually measure. We expect this term to remain popular in 2022.

7. Dogecoin

Like HODL, Dogecoin started out as somewhat of a joke before cryptocurrency enthusiasts took a legitimate interest in it. Specifically, the "doge" part of the name comes from an Internet meme that became highly popular in 2013.

The idea of the coin was created that same year by Jackson Palmer as a means of satirizing the wildly speculative nature of cryptocurrencies. Despite its unconventional beginnings, the meme coin became a reality before the end of the year and has since become the 10th biggest cryptocurrency by market cap by mid-December.

The price of Dogecoin skyrocketed 2,760% in 2021, which would have turned a $10,000 investment at the beginning of the year into $276,000, but it has been a volatile ride. Much of its recent popularity can likely be attributed to endorsements by popular celebrities, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has been a supporter of the meme coin since 2019, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. 2021 also saw the rise of Shiba Inu, another altcoin based on the dog breed of the same name, which is known as the "Dogecoin killer."

8. Non-Fungible Token (NFT)

Although the first ever non-fungible token (NFT) was created back in 2014, the cryptographic assets experienced a surge in popularity in early 2021 amid several high-profile sales. In March 2021, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made a tokenized version of the first tweet ever written, which sold for over $2.9 million. By Nov. 8, 2021, NFT marketplace Opensea had surpassed $10 billion in all-time sales.

Despite their popularity, NFTs have also faced criticism for their environmental impact, due to the high energy use associated with blockchain transactions. Additionally, as NFTs are an unregulated industry, there have been several instances of art plagiarism and fraud within this space. That said, million of artists, collectors, and enthusiasts have plunged into the world of non-fungible tokens, making the Lazy Ape Yacht Club and Pudgy Penguins part of the cultural landscape in 2021.

9. Short Interest

Searches for the term short interest spiked in mid-January 2021, coinciding with a short squeeze that kickstarted the meme stock craze. Back in August 2020, r/wallstreetbets subreddit user Keith Gill (AKA Roaring Kitty) posted a video explaining how shares of brick-and-mortar video game retailer GameStop Corp. (GME) could rise from $5 to $50 per share. By the end of the year, GME's stock price had quadrupled to nearly $20 per share.

In late January 2021, amid a surge of short covering and panic buying, GME shares hit $483. At the same time, following Gill's advice, retail investors went after some of the most heavily shorted stocks in the market, including AMC Entertainment (AMC) and BlackBerry (BB), bidding them higher amid a trading frenzy that would also squeeze institutional short-sellers, forcing them to abandon their positions and lose fortunes in the process.

10. Conservatorship

After pop star Britney Spears was hospitalized in 2008 to receive treatment for mental health issues, her father Jamie Spears was granted temporary conservatorship of his daughter and her estate, which was made permanent by a Los Angeles court soon after.

The situation wouldn't receive much public attention until 2019, when a paralegal of the conservatorship team leaked information detailing how restrictive the relationship actually was. This revelation led to the formation of the #FreeBritney movement, and Britney would later indicate through her lawyers that she wished to have the conservatorship over her lifted.

In February 2021, The New York Times released a television documentary titled Framing Britney Spears, which brought further mainstream attention to the conservatorship case. In a subsequent court appearance, Britney outlined the trauma, abuse, and lack of agency she endured over the past 13 years.

On Nov. 12, 2021, the conservatorship of both Britney and her estate was finally terminated "effective immediately." As noted by Britney earlier this year, thousands of people are stuck in similar toxic situations. The increased public awareness of conservatorship abuse has already spurred the discussion and proposal of legislative changes in states like California.

Honorable Mentions

Research and analysis by
Amanda Morelli
Amanda Morelli, Sr. Director of Data Journalism at Dotdash
Amanda is the Senior Director of Data Journalism at Dotdash Meredith (Investopedia's parent company) and she oversees development of data journalism projects for brands across the company.
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  1. The White House. "Fact Sheet: The American Families Plan." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  2. United States Senate Committee on Finance. "Wyden Unveils Billionaires Income Tax." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  3. Deutsche Bank. "Fiat Money, Fifty and Frail – Long-Term Asset Return Study 2021." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  4. International Trade Administration. "El Salvador Adopts Bitcoin as Legal Tender." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  5. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers: All Items in U.S. City Average." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  6. Google Trends. "HODL." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  7. Bitcoin Forum. "I Am HODLing." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  8. Tax Policy Center. "What Is the Child Tax Credit?" Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  9. The White House. "The Child Tax Credit." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  10. U.S. Department of the Treasury. "Testimony of Secretary of the Treasury Janet L. Yellen before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021. 

  11. Morningstar. "The Number of New Sustainable Funds Hits an All-Time Record." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  12. CoinMarketCap. "Dogecoin." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  13. CoinMarketCap. "Today's Cryptocurrency Prices by Market Cap." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  14. CoinMarketCap. "Shiba Inu." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  15. Sotheby's. "Quantum." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  16. Valuables. "Tweet/20." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  17. DappRadar. "OpenSea." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  18. Google Trends. "Short Interest." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  19. YouTube. "The Big Short SQUEEZE from $5 to $50? Could GameStop stock (GME) explode higher?? Value investing!" Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  20. Yahoo! Finance. "GameStop Corp. (GME)." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  21. The New York Times. "'Framing Britney Spears.'" Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

  22. California Legislative Information. "Assembly Bill No. 1194." Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.

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