Oxford English Dictionary Makes “Vax” 2021’s Word of the Year

"fauci ouchie" and "inoculati" are also featured

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The most impactful word in the English language this year is “vax”—no surprise there. “Vax,” a shortening of “vaccination,” has been named the Word of the Year by the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary. It comes from “clipping” a word.

Woman using dictionary to study words
According to Oxford Languages, sophisticated software allows lexicographers to identify new and emerging words. Photo By PHENPHAYOM / Shutterstock

Whether an individual is for or against the COVID-19 vaccination, there’s no doubt that the subject has permeated the everyday lexicon. In all likelihood, any one person has discussed the coronavirus vaccine as the pandemic has continued throughout 2021. Additionally, there’s a good chance we’ve used the shortened word “vax” instead of “vaccination.”

Due to its prominence in language for the year, it’s no surprise that the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary have made “vax” their Word of the Year for 2021. In her video series The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins, Dr. Anne Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan, explained different types of shortened words.

So That’s What That’s Called

Initialisms are one common way of shortening terms, such as saying “laser” instead of lightwave amplification by stimulated emission of radar. Taking the first letter from each word and making it an intelligible acronym saves time. Another way of abbreviating words is clipping.

“Clipping is just what it sounds like: We’re clipping part of the word off; that could be the front or that could be the back,” Dr. Curzan said. “Off the front, we’d get something like ‘rents’ for parents or ‘do’ from hairdo. ‘Blog’ is a clipping from weblog.”

On the other hand, if we clip the back end of the word off, we get shortened words like “limo” from limousine, “rehab” from rehabilitation, and even “mob.” Surprisingly, mob is a clip of the Latin phrase “mobile vulgus,” meaning “a fickle crowd.” Additionally, sometimes we take the middle of words and leave off the front and the back, such as “fridge” from refrigerator.

“Some of these clippings probably feel slangy to you because they are, but some clippings are now entrenched in the language and no longer feel slangy or even like clippings,” Dr. Curzan said. “‘Flu’ is a clipping from influenza; ‘phone’ from telephone; deli, lab, dorm. These, to us, now feel, I think, well established in the lexicon.”

Back Formation

There are also what are called minor word formation processes. One kind is blending, also known as making a portmanteau word. For example, “smog” is a blend of the words smoke and fog. “Netiquette” is a portmanteau of “net”—itself a clipping of internet—and etiquette. Another minor word formation process is back formation.

“This is where we take a word in the language and we reanalyze the parts, and from that we create a new word,” Dr. Curzan said. “We borrowed into English the word ‘beggar’ in the 13th century. You can even see from the spelling, which ends with ‘-ar,’ that it’s not a verb plus a suffix.”

However, the word “beggar” sounds a lot like “baker.” So if a baker bakes, and a taker takes, then a beggar must beg. This line of thinking caused people to backform the word “beg” from “beggar.” Surprisingly, words like this are everywhere.

“English had the word ‘diagnosis’ before we had the verb ‘diagnose’—that was backformed from diagnosis. ‘Television’ gives us the verb ‘televise;’ ‘lazy’ gives us the verb ‘laze,'” Dr. Curzan said. “If you’re lazy, what are you doing? You must be lazing around.”

“Vax” and its derivatives are popular enough to have become Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2021, following previous winners like selfie, unfriend, and toxic. Which word will top the charts in 2022?

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily