In an earlier issue of NEXT, I predicted the word "jab" would have a big year in 2021.
Turns out, I was right — sort of.
On Monday, Merriam-Webster named “vaccine” its Word of the Year. The dictionary publisher uses data to determine the word of the year, and the searches don’t lie: on the Merriam-Webster website, lookups for the word “vaccine” increased by 601 per cent over 2020, and 1,048 per cent compared to 2019. (“Pandemic,” naturally, was 2020’s word of the year.)
"This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021," Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, told The Associated Press.
Folks walk into the RBC Convention Centre vaccine supersite in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)
"It really represents two different stories. One is the science story, which is this remarkable speed with which the vaccines were developed. But there's also the debates regarding policy, politics and political affiliation. It's one word that carries these two huge stories."
(The Oxford English Dictionary went with the more casual “vax,” which I like better.)
But Sokolowski’s right: 2021 was, indeed, the year of the vaccine. It’s incredible, really, to think about how, this time last year, we were wrapping our minds around a December devoid of holiday celebrations and vaccination still felt so very far away.
Now, not only have I had two shots of two different flavours of vaccine, I’m soon to be eligible for a booster. (I personally feel weird about getting a third shot when many people in developing nations have yet to receive their first. The story of vaccines in 2021 includes vaccine hoarding, too, a subject for a future issue of this newsletter.)
My favourite vaccine story, though, has to be the one that has been unfolding over the past week, and that is the vaccination of the five to 11-year-old set.
Elodie Robert (ten, centre, arms raised) walks out of the RBC Convention Centre vaccination supersite with friends Mary-Elle Clark (left), Jacob Clark, Drew Robert, and Madison Brown after getting their shots in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)
My five-year-old niece — and, as I’ve no doubt mentioned here before, one of my all-time hall-of-fame favourite people — got her jab last week with her fave stuffy, Big Minnie, in tow (they both got matching "I’m COVID-19 Vaccinated" stickers).
My sister-in-law texted me a photo after it was done, my niece’s squinchy eyes smiling over her mask. Knowing that she’s a little safer, a closer to having the school year she deserves but has yet to have, filled my heart with joy, let me tell you. My friends have shared similar photos of their own kids, and the relief — of parent and child both — is palpable.
I felt the same joy earlier in the year when the grown-ups got their vaccines during what shall henceforth be known as Hot Vax Summer, sharing vaccine selfies and proudly sharing their status via vaccine slogan tees.
As I’ve written in this space before, to me, a vaccine is a passport to normalcy. It’s hope in a syringe. It’s a marvel of science. It’s a community duty, a cornerstone of public health. But the word "vaccine" also conjures division, debate and derision. It evokes conspiracy theories and misinformation and political footballs.
As the days get darker, I’m choosing to focus on the light. That we went from "pandemic" being the word of the year to "vaccine" in the space of a calendar year is nothing short of astonishing.
Jen Zoratti, Columnist