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An Injection of New Vocabulary

The COVID-19 pandemic, now in its second year, has changed behaviors, affected political movements, and altered economies. It has also had a big impact on language. In March 2020 I wrote about some of the new "coronacoinages" that surfaced early — from covidiot to Zoom-bombing — and in the months that followed I kept track of additions to the lexicon: zutor (a Zoom tutor), quarschmerz ("a poignant blend of quarantine and weltschmerz"), infit (an outfit worn indoors while sheltering in place), and more.

Our growing corona-cabulary now reflects the vaccination phase of the pandemic. Here are some of the brand names and words — newly coined or brought out of storage — that are enriching the conversation.

Pharma brands. The names of the dominant COVID vaccine manufacturers reveal their diverse origins. Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are the traditionalists, named for their 19th-century founders (Charles Pfizer and two Johnson brothers, respectively); AstraZeneca and Moderna are the neologists. AstraZeneca was formed through the 1999 merger of the Swedish company Astra (Latin for "star") and the British Zeneca Group. "Zeneca" was invented by the branding consultancy Interbrand; it needed to be a name that "began with a letter from either the top or bottom of the alphabet and was phonetically memorable," had no more than three syllables, and did not have an offensive meaning in any language (Wikipedia). Massachusetts-based Moderna, born in 2010, sounds like "modern" but in fact was coined from modified and RNA: the discovery of modified messenger molecules (mRNA) led to the company's founding.

Vaccine names. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson's COVID vaccines have literal names: mRNA-1273 and Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine, respectively. (Janssen, the Belgium-based pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, is named for its founder, Paul Janssen.) Pfizer's vaccine, Comirnaty, is more creatively named: it's a blend of COVID, community, and immunity, with mRNA in the middle. (It's pronounced koh-MIR-na-tee.) AstraZeneca's Vaxzevria is another creative coinage; the vax prefix suggests "vaccine," and the z may suggest "Zeneca," but the rest? Happy guessing. In India, the dominant vaccines are the transparently named Covishield and Covaxin. And in Russia, you'll find an old name back in orbit: Sputnik V, an echo of the pioneering satellite whose name means "fellow traveler."

"Shot" or "jab"? "The rollout of Coronavirus vaccines in the past week in both the U.K. and the U.S. highlights the different common word used in each for an injection," wrote Ben Yagoda in his "Not One-Off Britishisms" blog on December 16, 2020. "Here it's 'shot'; there it's 'jab.'" But that may be changing: A couple of weeks after Yagoda published his post, linguist Lynne Murphy proclaimed jab to be the UK-to-US import of the year. In recent months, American headlines have borne out the trend.

"Only half of NYers jabbed": New York Post, April 22, 2021. Many of those New Yorkers got their shots in the Javits Center, named for the 20th-century US Senator Jacob Javits and now sometimes playfully referred to as the "Jabits" Center.

As it happens, both shot and jab, in the "injection" sense, have late-19th-century American origins, wrote Ben Zimmer in his "Word on the Street" column for the Wall Street Journal — and both originally referred to injections of narcotics. Jab didn't reach the UK until World War II, according to Green's Dictionary of Slang; that was when British troops (influenced by their Yankee counterparts?) began using it to refer to inoculations against diseases like tuberculosis.

Vaccine status. Some vaccines require two injections spaced three or four weeks apart. What do you call someone who's received only the first shot? The jury is split between halfcinated and halfvaxxed. If you boast about being vaccinated, you may be accused of being a vaxhole. If you're erudite, you might say you'e now a member of the Inoculati, a faux-Latin word that suggests both inoculation and Illuminati. (The term was coined by Andrew Cassel — and others as well, no doubt — and reported by Ben Yagoda.) Or you may take a more playful approach and celebrate receiving your Fauci ouchie, named for US Chief Medical Officer Anthony Fauci. You could even document your vaccine experience, as many people have, by taking a vaxxie — a vaccine selfie.

Via Amazon. According to a widely circulated story, "Fauci ouchie" was coined by a 6-year-old in Charleston, South Carolina

Sharing the wealth. Not all vaccine vocabulary is facetious. Vaccine diplomacy, customarily defined as the use of vaccines as agents of international cooperation and conflict resolution, has been in the news lately, as many countries seek ways to donate surplus vaccine doses to places where supplies are short. The term was coined in 2001 by the virologist Peter Hotez, but the concept, Hotez has written, "is nearly as old as vaccines themselves." It has gained new traction recently, and Hotez has published a new book, Preventing the Next Pandemic, whose subtitle is "Vaccine Diplomacy in a Time of Anti-Science."

Linguistic border crossings. English isn't the only language that has put on pandemic weight. At the Institute for the German Language, in Leibniz, lexicographers have compiled more than 1,200 new German words and phrases connected to COVID, including Mundshutzmode ("mouth protection fashion" — a face mask) and Kontaktbeschränkungen (contact restrictions). My favorite new German words for our times are impfneid, which translates to "vaccine envy"; and impfdrängler, a person who has gone against government strategy and been vaccinated ahead of people with higher priority. Along with schadenfreude, doppelgänger, and poltergeist, these German inventions seem not just untranslatable but indispensable.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 17th, 6:33 AM
Comment by: Adolf V. (Lawrenceville, GA)
Excellent article! I very much enjoyed reading about the new German terms.
Friday June 4th, 10:08 AM
Comment by: Gabby
Well, I got my gabby jabby!

Have a fun dat!

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