Normally I look forward to this time of year when the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) names its word of the year.
Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, for the second year in a row, the top word is COVID-19-related.
Of course, everybody has individual tolerances for stress and anxiety, but if I had to hazard a guess, I suspect newspaper editors are probably pretty high up on the list of people who are the sickest and most tired of this pandemic.
Most of my own intense antithesis toward this never-ending story has to do with the politicization of vaccinations.
So, while naming ‘vax’ the word of the year makes sense, it just makes me go ‘ugh.’ Maybe that’s my personal word of the year.
It’s a shame, because the subject of vaccines is really fascinating.
We tend to think of vaccines as being a relatively recent development, generally the latter half of the 20th century. Which is pretty fair, actually, because it wasn’t until the 1950s and ’60s that development seriously escalated and they started to have really widespread (global) use and impact.
It led to the virtual eradication of transmissable diseases such as smallpox, polio, measles and others.
Vaccines have a very long history however. There is evidence that the Chinese were using innoculation (or variolation) against smallpox as early as the year 1000.
The technique spread to Turkey, Africa and eventually Europe and the Americas.
There was a lot of progress throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but historians tend to point to Edward Jenner as the innovator, who made the first major breakthrough in modern vaccine technology.
In 1796, Jenner tested the hypothesis that infection with cowpox — a relatively mild disease in cattle — could bestow immunity to smallpox in people.
Prior to that, variolation involved infecting people with matter from the pustules of people with smallpox. It was a risky procedure from which many people died, even if it did save many others. Also, the mild form of the disease contracted by others who had been could spread and sometimes ended up creating epidemics.
Oxford concluded, based on internet analytics, that ‘vax’ clearly dominated the language 2021. The term itself, on its own, is not new dating to the early 1980s.
Interestingly though, the variation ‘anti-vax’, which has become a seriously divisive force in society, goes all the way back to 1898 as a shortened version of anti-vaccinist.
And Edward Jenner himself used a variation nearly a century earlier in a letter.
‘The Anti-Vacks are assailing me… with all the force they can muster in the newspapers.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.