Oxford Languages, creators of the Oxford English Dictionary, have crowned “vax” as Word of the Year 2021.
“When our lexicographers began digging into our English language corpus data it quickly became apparent that vax was a particularly striking term,” Oxford Languages said in a statement. “A relatively rare word in our corpus until this year, by September it was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year.”
Looking at Google Trends, “vax” as a search term has seen a large growth in popularity over the course of this year compared to 2019 and 2020.
The report accompanying the announcement, titled A report into the language of vaccines, states that “For lexicographers, it is rare to observe a single topic impact language so dramatically, and in such a short period of time become a critical part of our everyday communication.”
The report explains that the spelling of the term varies – “vax” is used 89 percent of the time, whereas “vaxx” is used 11 percent of the time. However, that is reversed when it comes to inflected forms of the word such as “vaxxed”, with these having one “x” only 13 percent of the time, and two 87 percent of the time.
Weirdly, the report explains, the term “anti-vax” predates the standalone term “vax” by nearly a century – the term “vax” on its own dates back to the 1980s, whereas “anti-vax” was first recorded in 1898 as a shortened form of “anti-vaccinist”.
In fact, Edward Jenner, creator of the first vaccine, wrote in a letter in 1812 that “‘The Anti-Vacks are assailing me [...] with all the force they can muster in the newspapers.”
Jenner performed the first ever vaccination on May 14, 1796, inoculating a young boy named James Phipps with pus from a milkmaid infected with cowpox. This made Phipps immune to the much more deadly smallpox.
This experiment with cowpox is actually what gave vaccines their name, with “vaccine” being derived from the Latin “vacca”, meaning cow.
“In monopolising our discourse, it’s clear the language of vaccines is changing how we talk — and think — about public health, community, and ourselves,” said Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Languages.