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Healthy Aging: ‘Vax’ is an odd word of the year

The Oxford Language 2021 Word of the Year is vax. Yes, ”vax.”

It’s an abbreviation for the longer words we have often used in sentences this past year. Sentences like, “Yes, I had both my Moderna vaccinations, and next week I get my booster.”

Or sentences like, “I wasn’t sure about getting the vaccine until I read you are five times more likely to end up in the hospital if you get COVID and have not been vaccinated.”

Although I am more inclined to say “shot” or “shots” instead of vaccination(s). Because I just got my booster, that’s the word I use. Maybe booster will be next year’s word of the year.

I do not think I have ever used the word “vax” in casual conversation. It’s a word that one word merchant suggested “skulked around the margins of the language since it first appeared in the 1980s.” But apparently it came into its own this year; it was reported to have been used 72 times more frequently. I’m not sure how dictionary-types measure that kind of thing, but I take them at their word.

These lexicographers seem very pleased with their decision. They announced it by saying, “This jaunty form of vaccine has injected itself into the bloodstream of the English language.” I question the use of “jaunty” to describe anything involving sticking needles in arms, but maybe that’s just me.

This I know. Whatever term that’s used to describe how comforted I am that my immune-compromised husband and myself are fully vaccinated would understate the balm it brings to my life. I did a war hoop after my first shot and a thumbs up to the people waiting in line after my second vaccination. The likelihood that my 8-year-old grandson will receive the vaccine before Thanksgiving helps me sleep better at night.

For those still resistant to vaccination, I feel both a sadness and a certain incredulousness. I think of them often when I get in the car and buckle my seat belt in observance of the 1968 mandate that has probably prevented hundreds of thousands of car accident deaths. Sometimes I think of the people opposed to the vax when I am in the shower and see the faint scar on my upper leg that my polio vaccination left.

And when that happens, it usually it takes my mind back to a seventh-grade moment when a sad-eyed friend took me to his home to meet his mother. She had polio and was in an iron lung in the center of an empty “living” room, with the whooshing noise from her metal-encased cage-bed the only sound. Her head was exposed but her body was fully enclosed. She faintly smiled and made strained attempts to speak. My friend put one hand, palm-down, on the side of the iron lung and held it there for several seconds. He smiled back, I think. I like to remember that he smiled back.

Thanks to the widespread use of polio vaccine, the United States has been polio-free since 1979. Remember that.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharjohn99@gmail.com.