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Oxford Word of the Year 2021 is: VAX

by | Dec 13, 2021 | Dictionaries, News

1st November 2021 (Oxford, UK and New York, NY) – Oxford Languages announces its 2021 Word of the Year, and the publication of the language report: VAX, a Report into the language of vaccines.

In past years, the Oxford Word of the Year has been selected as a word or expression shown through usage evidence to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months, and to have potential as a term of lasting cultural significance. In 2020, a year that saw a cornucopia of new words, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, Oxford Languages decided that one word to sum up the year wasn’t possible and so instead, published its Word of an Unprecedented Year report. Would 2021 continue in the same vein…?


The word vax, more than any other, has injected itself into the bloodstream of the English language in 2021. That’s why it’s our word of the year. But research has also revealed that a plethora of other vaccine-related words received a healthy shot in the arm alongside it. And, of course, not just in English-speaking parts of the world.  To get to the lexicographical heart of a subject that has pervaded all our lives this year, the 2021 report explores not only the word of the year but the wider language of vaccines in English and in nine other languages, from Bangla to Portuguese, Arabic to Mandarin.

Of all the vaccine-related words that have spiked this year, perhaps the most striking is vax. Despite being around since the 1980s (as a noun in the sense ‘a vaccine or vaccination’) and the early 21st century as a verb (‘to vaccinate’) it is a word that had been rarely used.  That is until 2021 when usage has quite literally shot up!  By September vax was over 72 times more frequent than at the same time last year and, what’s more, is now used in a wide range of contexts, from vax cards to fully-vaxxed, to the freshly coined vax(i)cation (a post- vaccination getaway). Significantly older, but also seeing a sharp increase in recent usage, is anti-vax (short for anti-vaccinist), and anti-vaxxer.

Tracking vaccine-related language across the year has been able to give a real sense of how vaccine rollouts have progressed. Drawing on information in our language corpus, we can establish that back in December 2020, the most frequently used ‘vaccine’ words were vaccine candidate, vaccine trial, vaccine distribution, and vaccine development. Preparations were underway. By March 21 vaccine rollout and vaccine dose were top of the list. Vaccine programmes had started. 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.


A novel experience often prompts an injection of new words into the English language and our intense interactions with vaccines and vaccinations over the past twelve months has meant this year has been no exception. From vax-a-thon (first used to refer to a mass vaccination event in Philadelphia in January 21) to strollout (originally used by Sally McManus to express frustration at capacity problems and slow rollout of vaccines in Australia at that time), vaxxie (a selfie taken during or immediately after vaccination) to Fauci ouchie (the sharp scratch of the needle providing half of the rhyming name for the vaccination, American physician, Dr Anthony Fauci, the other), the words we use can often reflect the mood of a nation.


Well, it really depends on where in the world  you are.  In Britain, you are far more likely to have a jab (or in Scotland, jag) whereas in the US, it’s shot or vax, the latter also being commonly used in Australia and South East Asia.

And what about languages other than English?

What impact has the language of vaccines made on them? In Portuguese, the word for vaccine, ‘vacina’ is now over ten times more frequently used than it was a decade ago while in French ‘vaccin’ has increasingly come to refer only to the Covid-19 vaccine, as if all others have disappeared. In Hindi, the word for vaccine (including the Covid-19 vaccine) is ‘teeka’, which is also an informal word for ‘tilak’, the sacred mark applied to the forehead on auspicious occasions in some customs and religions as a symbol for warding off the evil eye. And, in Mandarin, there is no one word. Rather vaccine is formed by combining two separate characters, those of ‘epidemic’ and ‘seedling’. The word usually collocates with the verb (jiē zhòng or jee jong), which is a combination of two characters which mean ‘to connect, to graft, or to transfer’ and ‘to grow, plant, or to cultivate’.

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

Casper Grathwohl, President, Oxford Languages

For more information, please read VAX, a report into the language of vaccines.


Twitter: @OxfordLanguages | #WOTY2021

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