A tale of a vax, a WOTY and a cow

Graphic of Roland Sussex in greyscale with a blue and green gradient behind him.

by Emeritus Professor Roland 'Roly' Sussex OAM FQA Chevalier des Palmes Académiques

School of Languages and Cultures
Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation 2021

OxfordLanguages at the Oxford University Press, home of the venerable and venerated Oxford English Dictionary, have chosen “vax” as their Word Of The Year or “WOTY” for 2021. 

This is no surprise. Vaccinations have had more public volume and footprint than anything except “Covid” and “Coronavirus” in 2021. In 2020 “Covid” actually pushed one Donald J. Trump into second place, and by a substantial margin. If you are going to be beaten, it might as well be by a virus. 

But I digress. The Word Of The Year began as Wort des Jahres (word of the year) in Germany in 1971 as an initiative of the Institute for the German Language. The idea was picked up and amplified by the American Dialect Society in 1980.

Since then a whole raft of word-related enterprises have launched their own WOTYs, including the Macquarie Dictionary in Australia. The UK Oxford’s WOTY has a special place because it is the first of the annual rollout. 

The idea behind WOTY is to select a word which captures the essence, flavour and preoccupations of the year just passing, or past. That in itself is an intriguing concept: is there one specific word which can really capture a year? 

In retrospect the WOTYs have varied from the global to local and trivial, and much in between. 

In 2013 “selfie”, an Australianism, was the WOTY in several jurisdictions, and a timely choice it was. But who remembers “chad”, bits of paper on voting papers in America in 2000? On the other hand, “fake news” certainly merited its election in 2017. 

So how will “vax” fare? It’s a diminutive from “vaccination”. Australians excel at diminutives. I have a database of more than 6,100 of them. 

On current indications “vax” is the only viable WOTY choice for 2021. And its echoes will persist for 2022 and beyond. Covid will be with us forever, and the Covid jab is becoming like the annual flu jab, albeit with more dire omens if we forget, omit or avoid it. 

But “vax” is also spelt “vaxx”. And that is more curious. There are two other words in English – I have checked the Oxford English Dictionary online – which have “xx”. One is “faxx” and the other is “doxx”. “I faxxed him” is an optional past tense for “I faxed him”. And to “doxx” someone is to release documents on the Internet to show them in a compromising, foolish or stupid light. Doxxing or doxing can be nasty and damaging. 

The “xx” version of “vax” is found in expressions like “I have been vaxxed”. But why the double “xx”? 

For some it’s a way of indicating “I have been double-vaccinated”, where “x” marks the spot, hypodermically speaking. That’s a piece of word-play. In dire times we need a bit of light-heartedness. 

But there is a possible linguistic rationale as well. We double some consonants before verb forms ending in -ING, -ED and -ER, for example to separate “striped” from “stripped”. But there are very few verbs ending in ”-x”, and we don’t double the “x”: “I boxed up the presents”, not “I boxxed up the presents”. 

And in addition to “vaxxed” there is “vaxxer”. In fact, we talk more about anti-vaxxers than vaxxers, even though there are many more vaxxers than anti-vaxxers. 

And it’s the “xx” version that leads. The American Merriam-Webster dictionary lists only “anti-vaxxer”, and ignores “anti-vaxer” entirely. The British Oxford has both, but in the online version of the dictionary “anti-vaxxer” is preferred. Google is a useful rough estimate of public usage. It has 5.18 million hits for “anti-vaxxer” versus only 430,000 for “anti-vaxer”. 

A GIF of white text being typed onto a blue background. The text reads: selfie, chad, fake news, vax, vaxx, faxx, doxx, vaxxer.

There is one more twist to the plot. Vax has a Latin source. Permit me to reveal the denouement. 

Until 1980, when it was declared eradicated, smallpox was a dreadful scourge, often fatal. It killed probably 500 million people. And if it was not fatal it could be horribly disfiguring.

But in 1798 the British physician Edward Jenner published a paper where he reported a way of preventing smallpox. He had observed that milkmaids didn’t catch smallpox. But they did get cowpox, a milder disease.

Jenner reasoned that having had cowpox might made one immune to smallpox. So he took some of the scabs from cow pox lesions and inserted them under the skin of non-milkmaids. And lo, they caught not smallpox. They had, as we would now say, been vaccinated. 

Which is how the cow finally enters the story. The Latin for “cow” is vacca, from which we derive vaccination. Be grateful for Jenner, and his cow, and the cow-pox. 

Nota bene, not cow-poxx. 

A blue line drawing illustration of a cow.

Join the conversation

What is your personal Word Of The Year for 2021?

Let us know by leaving a comment below (your comments here are governed by Facebook Terms of Service and UQ Social Media Terms of Use).