Word of the Year 2021: meaning of ‘Vax’, why Oxford English Dictionary chose it, and previous words explained

Oxford Languages publishes its Word of the Year annually

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Oxford Languages has announced its Word of the Year for 2021 as ‘vax’.

But what does the word mean and what were the words for 2019 and 2020?

Here’s what you need to know.

What does ‘vax’ mean?

Vax is short for vaccine. According to the 2021 report, the word vaccine was first recorded in 1799, with its derivatives vaccinate and vaccination appearing a year later.

Vaccine is believed to derive from the Latin word vacca, which means cow, with the report saying this is related to English physician and scientist Edward Jenner’s work on vaccination against smallpox in the late 1790s and early 1800s.

Oxford Languages president Casper Grathwohl said: “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.”

Oxford Languages, when announcing the publication of its latest language report looking into the language of vaccines,  titled VAX, said that “the word vax, more than any other, has injected itself into the bloodstream of the English language in 2021”.

The organisation said: “A relatively rare word in our corpus until this year, by September it was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year.

“It has generated numerous derivatives that we are now seeing in a wide range of informal contexts, from vax sites and vax cards to getting vaxxed and being fully vaxxed, no word better captures the atmosphere of the past year than vax.”

What was the Word of the Year for 2019 and 2020?

The Covid pandemic hit the globe in 2020 and Oxford Languages said that as the Word of the Year process started and data was opened up, it quickly became apparent that 2020 was not a year that could neatly be accommodated in one single “word of the year”.

Oxford Languages instead decided to report more expansively on the “phenomenal breadth of language change and development over the year in our Words of an Unprecedented Year report”.

In 2019, the Word of the Year was ‘Climate emergency’.

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