Here’s why they called it ‘vaccine of the year’

The annual Merriam-Webster, the authority on all things printed-word related, has selected the word “vaccine” as its word of the year, deeming it one of the “most important words of the year.” Merriam-Webster notes that the development and use of the word “vaccine” increased by more than 10,000 percent in 2018, amid high-profile debates on both sides of the argument on whether or not vaccines are effective. Merriam-Webster explains that this trend is “a dramatic shift in discourse,” because in previous years, “whereever the term ‘vaccine’ came up in a dictionary, there was a certain amount of discussion, and quite often opposition to immunization.” In the current environment, however, every individual’s right to choose whether or not to be vaccinated no longer carries such weight — instead, those advocating for the desire for a safe and effective vaccine often find themselves engaged in intellectual and political debate. The rise of vaccine as a commonly used political issue is most apparent in France and in the United Kingdom, where the debate over the vaccine schedule was recently central to the general election in the U.K.

Additionally, the rise of the anti-vaccine movement led some critics to suggest that the word “vaccine” is being “weaponized” by anti-vaccine activists. Merriam-Webster defines this argument as “repeatedly and erroneously asserting that the use of vaccines is dangerous or unreliable, or that they have the potential to cause harm.” This issue emerged again in the wake of the measles outbreak that was most notable in California, which has led to the most number of measles cases in that state in at least five years. From 2012 to 2017, an estimated 60 million Americans were exposed to unsafe vaccine practices, such as the blending of vaccines into one.

In an attempt to de-weaponize the word “vaccine,” a growing number of groups including the ACLU and the American Red Cross have abandoned the label “medical intervention,” or (in the words of Lawrence Goldstein) “something your baby must do if he or she is to be held in the home.” But despite these group’s concern for the well-being of mothers and their babies, the majority of doctors oppose the term “vaccine” as a substitute for a medical intervention. Many physicians, as The New York Times explains, “strongly consider vaccines to be safe, effective and safe when administered in the amount, in the dose and in the frequency recommended by the public health system.”

When asked about this controversy, Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski explained that the words we use today “are so numerous that there is something of a confusion regarding what you call a vaccine when you’re referring to something that is considered to be an ‘immunization.’ There are practical reasons for this, like evidence-based medical science, but also it may be because we, as a culture, just call things by so many different names that we have trouble distinguishing between what it is and what it isn’t.” Merriam-Webster editors created a new word-of-the-year citation to “specify the number of citations that a word received during a year and quantified the trend by dividing the increase in citations by the total number of citations.”

Read the full story at The New York Times.


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