’VAX’ was chosen as the term to describe this year given the term’s frequent usage. Picture: EPA/JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BOTT
’VAX’ was chosen as the term to describe this year given the term’s frequent usage. Picture: EPA/JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BOTT

Covid-19 vaccine takes a jab at this year’s Oxford Word of the Year

By Murphy Nganga Time of article published Nov 4, 2021

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Cape Town - Just like everyone had to adapt to the changes happening around the world, so did the English language, after Oxford University announced its Word of the Year for 2021.

According to Oxford’s Words of an Unprecedented Year report, ’vax’ was chosen as the term to reflect this year, given the term’s ability to re-inject itself into the English language, through expressions demonstrated to mirror the ethos and mood of the past 12 months.

The report further explains that, of all the vaccine-related terms that have increased in popularity this year, ’vax’ has been the most noticeable, despite the fact that the word has been used as a noun since the 1980s in the meaning of ’a vaccine or vaccination’.

Oxford Languages president Casper Grathwohl said that, after analysing the linguistic data, ’vax’ emerged as an obvious option against the background of Covid-19 and the themes focused on when monitoring the use of language this year.

“When reviewing the language evidence, ’vax’ stood out as an obvious choice. The word’s dramatic spike in usage caught our attention first. Then we ran the analysis and a story started to emerge, revealing how ’vax’ sat at the centre of our preoccupations this year.

“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 monopolising our discourse, it’s clear the language of vaccines is changing how we talk and think about public health, community and ourselves,” said Grathwohl.

The report indicated that by September, vax was over 72 times more frequently used during the same time last year, given its use in different contexts such as vax cards or fully-vaxxed.

The lead publisher at Oxford University Press South Africa, Dr Phillip Louw, said that within that language paradigm 'vax' stood out because of how natural and easy it is to abbreviate words

“Last year there was so much happening (BLM, American elections, Covid/lockdowns/remote working, climate emergency issues like bushfires, etc) that we couldn’t select a single word of the year.

“The term ’vax’ has really stood within that language paradigm because it is just such a natural and easy way of abbreviating the words vaccine and vaccinate - and human beings just love to abbreviate words!

“Secondly, it really lends itself to being used in combination with other words - e.g. vax cards, fully-vaxxed/double-vaxxed, and, of course, anti-vaxxer. The latter, anti-vaxxer, is probably how we’ve seen it used most frequently in South Africa.

“When looking at the criteria that determine the Word of the Year, firstly, we’d really want a word that captures the zeitgeist of a particular year - especially if it’s such an influential era in history as we’re living through now. Secondly, we’d want to look at a word that has seen a dramatic increase in its use from the year before. Thirdly, we’d want to look at a word that had ’staying power’ throughout the year - not just trending for a short period like a week or a month,” said Louw.

Given the range of terms used this year, Louw adds that language will evolve in conjunction with society since language serves as a mirror that prevents meaningful communication between people.

“Language really is like a mirror that you hold up to society. So it makes sense then that, at times of great flux in society, language will change radically alongside it. We already saw that starting last year with words and phrases entering the collective lexicon that are directly related to the pandemic, e.g. coronavirus, lockdown, social distancing, covidiot, mask culture, etc. But also words and phrases indirectly related to it, e.g. zoombombing, remote working, and unmute.

“We’ve seen that trend continue this year with the language of vaccination, and I think we’ll see it continuing for as long as the pandemic still has an impact on our lives.

“Already we’re seeing trends like ’The Great Resignation’ and ’vaccine passports’ gaining ground. And we, as OUP, will continue to monitor those and many others closely with our corpus software to make sure we keep our finger on the pulse of how language changes as the world changes,” said Louw.

Weekend Argus

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