A Matter of Vax

Have you posted a vaxxie on social media?  Are you a vaxinista or an anti-vaxxer?  Have you been double-vaxxed

These words are just some of the many derivatives of vax, which has just been pronounced Word of The Year by the Oxford English Dictionary.

 “The word vax, more than any other, has injected itself into the bloodstream of the English language in 2021,” said the OED, unable to resist a pun.    

And they ought to know.  To find the word that ‘most reflects the ethos, mood or preoccupations’ of the preceding year, Oxford scans a continually updated corpus of more than 14.5 billion words gathered from news sources across the English-speaking world. 14 and a half billion! That’s some powerful computer software they’ve got there.

They went on to say that it was ‘rare to observe a single topic impact language so dramatically and in such a short period of time.’  That topic is vaccines and vaccination, which have dominated global discourse in 2021 even more than the many pandemic-related words and phrases did last year:  words such as Covid, lockdown and social distancing, and all those portmanteau words starting with corona or iso. 

The use of vaccine has doubled in the past year, but its upstart offspring vax has eclipsed them all.  In the 12 months between September 2020 and September this year, vax appeared 72 times more frequently than it did the year before!

Vax is much younger than vaccine and vaccination, which have been around for over two hundred years.   All these words ultimately come from the Latin word vacca, for cow.  Every schoolchild knows – well, I hope they do – that English physician Edward Jenner invented vaccination when he noticed that milkmaids who contracted the mild disease cowpox didn’t get the far worse disease smallpox.  He surmised that injecting or ‘inoculating’ people with cowpox would protect against smallpox, and he was right.  This happened way back in 1799. 

Interestingly, although the short form vax didn’t pop up in English till the 1980s, Edward Jenner himself coined a short punchy term for the opposition as early as 1812, when he complained: ‘The Anti-Vacks are assailing me . . . with all the force they can muster in the newspapers.’

So although the spelling might be different, we had anti-vaxxers before we had vaxxers!  Incidentally, while vax and vaxx are both accepted spellings, the OED says the form with one x is more common.

Is it?  I wonder.   Consider this lot:  you can be vaxxed or double-vaxxed, and when you get your booster shot you’ll be triple-vaxxed.  (Come the next variant, heaven forfend, we might all have to get quadruple-vaxxed!)

Double exxed the lot of them.  Then there’s the vaxxie, defined by the OED as ‘a photograph of oneself taken during or immediately before or after a vaccination at a vax site and typically shared on social media; a vaccination selfie.’  

The OED has also noted the vaxxident, the traffic accident that allegedly results from the side effects of Covid vaccination.  They say this has so far been seen mainly on vaccine-skeptical websites.

Then there’s the vax-a-thon, wherein hordes of people at a time step up to bare their arms for a jab.  My favourite is vaxinista.  That’s the person who flaunts their vaccination status on social media, likewise their ability to go to all sorts of fun events by flashing their vax card, which will also allow them to get on aeroplanes and go to exotic places on vaxcation

I also love vaxdar which is what you’ve got when you can just tell whether someone’s been vaccinated.    

A certain tennis star has inspired what I think is so far the only name-related vax joke.  I’m referring, of course, to Novax Jokovic. 

Jokovic’s reluctance to get vaccinated, even if it means he misses major tournaments, reminds us that Covid vaccination is a highly polarised issue.  The OED has noted the use of anti-faxxers to refer to people who supposedly refuse to believe in facts such as the dangerous nature of the virus and the usefulness of masks and social distancing in preventing its spread.  The OED says that anti-faxxers and spreadnecks are relatively rare derogatory terms for deniers and conspiracy theorists. 

These folks might retaliate with a derogatory term of their own and accuse pro-vaxxers of belonging to the inoculati.  With its evocation of illuminati, this term suggests a sinister powerful elite run by the likes of Bill Gates and bent on injecting us all with microchips. 

I’ll leave you with the fun term for the Covid jab coined by some Americans: named for US health supremo Anthony Fauci, it’s the Fauci ouchie.

This was first published in the New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News on 19.11.21