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Sunday, June 26, 2022

“Vax” Oxford University Press word of the year

Maisie Burgess looks at the significance of Oxford University Press’ choice for their annual “word of the year”.

Remember the days when our language seemed less dramatic, less scientific? Back in the days when the Word of the Year was ‘chav’ (2004), or ‘selfie’ (2013), or even the crying face emoji (2015)? These words seem a far cry from the mass of jargon which has become our everyday vocabulary over the past two years, and, as usual, the announcement of Oxford University Press’s Word of the Year confirms these societal trends: ‘vax’ has been chosen as the the word which best summarizes the year of 2021.

It is unsurprising that after months of reports, discoveries, and protests, the language of vaccination has boomed. By September, the word ‘vax’ had become over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year. In correspondence to this, lexical derivatives also surged, and terms such as, ‘vax sites’, ‘vax card’, and ‘vaxathon’ became the spoken, and written, norm.

The Oxford Word of the Year award, run by Oxford Languages, is intended to be a word that ‘reflects the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have lasting potential as a word of cultural significance’. It is decided through various means, including individual social media suggestions, and high-tech software which scans millions of words from online publications over the past twelve months.

The last Word of the Year from 2020 remained unidentifiable. Oxford Languages instead incorporated the mass of language adaption and evolution in a report called ‘Words of an Unprecedented Year’. Perhaps we should take it as an optimistic sign then, that this year we have re-established our ability to be compressed into a single word. 

Alongside the main announcement of ‘vax’ as the Word of the Year, there also comes a full lexical report into the language of vaccines. With such rapid technological advancements that we have been observing and, indeed, been a part of, it is obvious that language would follow a similar development, much like lexicographers experienced during times such as the Industrial Revolution. As new inventions, theories and ideas are created, humans need to find ways to understand and communicate this, and so words, both new and reinvented, alter dramatically. 

For the first time ever, this year, the Word of the Year investigation has also decided to analyse other languages besides English. Given the international influence the pandemic has had, the report examines the terminology of vaccines in nine other languages, from Portuguese to Mandarin. It marks variations in terminology like England’s favouring of a ‘jab’, as opposed to the US’s ‘shot’ or ‘vax’. Another interesting, if predictable, finding to come out of the study is the ability to track the progress of the vaccine rollout scheme through lexis. 

We can see, therefore, that back in December 2020, the most frequently used vaccine related words were ‘vaccine candidate’, ‘vaccine trial’, ‘vaccine distribution’, and ‘vaccine development’. Things were hesitant but hopeful. By March 21, ‘vaccine rollout’ and ‘vaccine dose’ took the lead and then by September, we saw terms such as ‘vaccine mandate’, ‘vaccine passport’, ‘vaccine card’ and ‘vaccine booster’ join the lexicon. ‘Vaccine hesitancy’, which had entered the top ten most used ‘vaccine’ words by March, continues to be widely used. 

It is easy to witness and recall these stages of 2021 history when we see these words, and many have now become second nature to us. Speech which would previously have been exclusive to medics, has now become the everyday dialect of our society. Though sad, this may be an important representation of our engagement and interest in something which would have seemed incomprehensible back in 2019.

Speaking to News 24, Casper Grathwohl, the President of Oxford Languages, said that, “the evidence was everywhere, from dating apps (vax 4 vax) and pent-up frustrations (hot vax summer) to academic calendars (vaxx to school) and bureaucratic operations (vax pass). In monopolizing our discourse, it’s clear the language of vaccines is changing how we talk—and think—about public health, community, and ourselves.” 

‘Vax’ being our Word of the Year may be a positive sign. It reflects a move towards a greater normality that everyone has wished for. Let’s just hope that next year’s word might return to something more light-hearted like an emoji.

Image: Hakan Nural via unsplash.com

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