It’s the final day of the year, and more pertinently, the final column of the year, so there’s no better occasion to review what the year 2021 has contributed to the English language. Its principal custodian, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), regularly admits new words into the lexicon, and this year is no exception, as several dozen have made the cut. We’ll look at a few of them next week.
But first, roll out the trumpets. The gurus of the OED have chosen the word of the year — and the word that has won favour with its distinguished lexicographers is, wait for it: vax! Yes, that short form for vaccination has swept the honours board. Words related to vaccines have spiked in frequency in 2021 due to Covid, they explain, and vax has been the preferred form, with double-vaxxed, unvaxxed and anti-vaxxer all seeing significantly increased usage. OED senior editor Fiona McPherson says vax has made “the most striking impact” this year, though its use “goes back at least to the 1980s”. But this is the year it has finally come into its own, and like a struggling actor who finally lands a starring role and aces the part, vax walks away with the statuette. (The OED notes that vax and vaxx are both accepted spellings but the former, with one x, is more commonly used.)
Vax is nicely versatile. As a noun, it’s just a vaccine or vaccination. As a verb, to vax means to vaccinate. If you’re opposed to vaccination, you’re anti-vax (an adjective), or an anti-vaxxer (another noun). If you’ve had two doses of a vaccine, you’re double-vaxxed (another adjective). And if you point your phone at yourself during or immediately before or after a vaccination, especially one against Covid-19, and then share it on social media, you’ve taken a vaxxie — a vaccination selfie.
So you can see why the language mavens at the OED were enamoured of vax. Still, they could also have gone with pandemic, the use of which, they admit, has increased by more than 57,000 per cent this year. Oxford is not the only entity to announce a Word of the Year; their rivals at Collins do the same. Last year, the Collins Dictionary chose “lockdown” as its word of the year 2020; Oxford Languages disagreed, instead choosing several joint winners from words associated with the year’s events — including lockdown, bushfires and Covid-19 itself, as well as Black Lives Matter and even WFH [working from home]. This year, in vax, they found an undisputed winner.
Previous Words of the Year from Oxford have included “selfie” in 2013, “post-truth” in 2016, and “climate emergency” in 2019. Collins, for its part, crowned “geek” in 2013, “photobomb” the year after, “binge-watch” in 2015, and “fake news” in 2017. Both sets of lexicologists are clearly watching the news closely in making their selections.
This year’s Oxford-winning word, vax, was first recorded in English in 1799, while its derivatives vaccinate and vaccination both first appear in 1800. The words are rooted in the Latin vacca, or cow, since the English vaccination pioneer Edward Jenner used the virus of cowpox — a mild infection that occurs in cows — to inoculate people against smallpox in the late 1790s and early 1800s.
So vax is here to stay, with its Oxford Word of the Year imprimatur. What are some of the “best supporting actor” awards for words in 2021 that OED saw fit to recognise as acceptable English for the first time? Again, many are anchored in the news reports: for instance, anti-blackness, a noun defined as “prejudice, hostility, or antagonism towards, or discrimination against, black people”. Contemporary culture is also reflected in body-shamer, for “a person who mocks, humiliates, or stigmatises someone on the basis of supposed faults or imperfections in body shape, size, or appearance.” We can thank American politics for another term — defunding: “The action or practice of withdrawing funding from an enterprise, institution, etc., either wholly or in part.” This word is the result of a passionate political movement in a number of American cities to “defund” police departments that had mistreated black people. Minneapolis has already passed a defunding law. The rest of us have the word.
Here are the origins of some more Americanisms that are in common usage wherever English is spoken