Press review: COVID-19, the word “vaccine”

During 2021, close to eight billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine were administered worldwide. It is no surprise then that Oxford Languages, the organization behind the famous Oxford English Dictionary, has chosen “vax” ad its Word of the Year.
“Vax” is an informal version of “vaccination” or “vaccinate”. The lexicographers at Oxford Languages analysed a huge corpus of texts and discovered that the world “vaccine” was being used twice as often in September 2021 as it was in the same month of 2021 as it was in the same month of 2020; “vaccination” was being used eighteen times more; and “vaccinate” thirty-four times more. But the most notable change came in the use of “vax”: usage had increased seventy-two-fold over the year! While the words “vaccine”, “vaccination” and “vaccinate” go back more than two hundred years, “vax” only appeared in the 1980s and was relatively uncommon until 2020-21.

The word “vaccine” (derived from the Latin “vacca” meaning “cow”) was first recorded in English in 1799. British scientist Edward Jenner had been experimenting with taking material from cows that were sick with a disease called cowpox and injecting it into humans. He wanted to see if controlled exposure to cowpox would protect people against a related human disease called smallpox. It did! Because of the cow connection, Jenner called this new process “vaccination”. A few decades later, the words “vaccine” and “vaccination” were being used to refer to inoculation against diseases in general, even though cows were no longer involved. The term “Anti-Vack” (a person opposed to vaccination) had already emerged by 1812. Jennifer complained that “anti-vacks” were writing newspaper articles criticising his work. Today anti-vacks would be called “anti-vaxxers”.

Plenty of playful new words developed out of the base word “vax” as people looked for ways to bring some light relief into endless news about pandemic. A “vax-a-thon” is a mass vaccination event. A “vaxxident” is a road accident blamed on the alleged side-effects of the vaccine. And a “vaxcation” is a vacation or trip made possible by being vaccinated. The word “vaxxie”, meaning a selfie taken during or judt after getting a vaccine, became very popular as social media filled up with photos of people proudly showing off their newly-vaccinated arms.
So why did the informal word “vax” suddenly become so popular when the words “vaccine”, “vaccination” and “vaccinate” are already well established in the English language? The answer is that “vax” is a short and snappy term, quick to write and say, but also versatile. It works as a noun, meaning “vaccination” or “vaccine”, but also as a verb meaning “to vaccinate”. I’ve even seen a pro-vaccination campaigner with a poster urging people to “Vax Up!” (Get vaccinated!). There’s always room for one more phrasal verb in English!

The root “vax” does feature in many but not all of the new or newly popular vaccine-related words and expressions. We shouldn’t forget “inoculati”, which merges the words “inoculation” and “illuminati” to refer to the sector of society that has been vaccinated and so enjoys greater social freedom. Then there is the inventive term “Fauci Ouchie”, meaning Covid vaccination, which went viral in the US. Antony Fauci is the strongly pro-vaccination chief medical adviser to Joe Biden. “Ouch!” is the exclamation people make when something hurt a little but, like an injection.

Source: “Speak Up” – January, 2022

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