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New words, new dialogues

In August 2014, OxfordDictionaries.com added numerous new words and definitions to their database, and we invited a few experts to comment on the new entries. Below, Janet Gilsdorf, President-elect of Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, discusses anti-vax and anti-vaxxer. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford Dictionaries or Oxford University Press.

It’s beautiful, our English language — fluid and expressive, colorful and lively. And it’s changeable. New words appear all the time. Consider “selfie” (a noun), “problematical” (an adjective), and “Google” (a noun that turned into a verb.) Now we have two more: “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer.” (Typical of our flexible vernacular, “anti-vaxxer” is sometimes spelled with just one “x.”) I guess inventing these words was inevitable; a specific, snappy short-cut was needed when speaking about something as powerful and almost cult-like as the anti-vaccine movement and its disciples.

When we string our words together, either new ones or the old reliables, we find avenues for telling others of our joys and disappointments, our loves and hates, our passions and indifferences, our trusts and distrusts, and our fears. The words we choose are windows into our minds. Searching for the best terms to use helps us refine our thinking, decide what, exactly, we are contemplating, and what we intend to say.

Embedded in the force of the new words “anti-vax” and “anti-vaxxer” are many of the tales we like to tell: our joy in our children, our disappointment with the world; our love of independence and autonomy, our hate of things that hurt us or those important to us; our passion for coming together in groups, our indifference to the worries of strangers; our trust, fueled by hope rather than evidence, in whatever nutty things may sooth our anxieties, our distrust in our sometimes hard-to-understand scientific, medical, and public health systems; and, of course, our fears.

Fear is usually a one-sided view. It is blinding, so that in the heat of the moment we aren’t distracted by nonsense (the muddy foot prints on the floor, the lawn that needs mowing) and can focus on the crisis at hand. Unfortunately, fear may also prevent us from seeing useful things just beyond the most immediate (the helping hands that may look like claws, the alternatives that, in the end, are better).

Image credit: Vaccination. © Sage78 via iStockphoto. - See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/04/vaccines-world-immunization-week/#sthash.9VlGEhJM.dpuf
Image credit: Vaccination. © Sage78 via iStockphoto.

For the anti-vax group, fear is the gripping terror that awful things will happen from a jab (aka shot, stick, poke). Of course, it isn’t the jab that’s the problem. Needles through the skin, after all, deliver medicines to cure all manner of illnesses. For anti-vaxxers, the fear is about the immunization materials delivered by the jab. They dread the vaccine antigens, the molecules (i.e. pieces of microbes-made-safe) that cause our bodies to think we have encountered a bad germ so we will mount a strong immune response designed to neutralize that bad germ. What happens after a person receives a vaccine is, in effect, identical to what happens after we recover from a cold or the flu — or anthrax, smallpox, or possibly ebola (if they don’t kill us first). Our blood is subsequently armed with protective immune cells and antibodies so we don’t get infected with that specific virus or bacterium again. Same for measles, polio, or chicken-pox. If we either get those diseases (which can be bad) or the vaccines to prevent them (which is good), our immune system can effectively combat these viruses in future encounters and prevent infections.

So what should we do with our new words? We can use them to express our thoughts about people who haven’t yet seen the value of vaccines. Hopefully, these new words will lead to constructive dialogues rather than attacks. Besides being incredibly valuable, words are among the most vicious weapons we have and we must find ways to use them responsibly.

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