March 19, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich
From covidiots to vaxxies: How our pandemic language changed over a year
When the pandemic started in early 2020, I began to record some of the changes in our language that this global upheaval brought with it. The language of war was everywhere, a type of language that we are quite used to from other health emergencies. But a new language also began to emerge. We started using words like ‘lockdown’, ‘social distancing‘ and ‘self-isolation’ – words of crime and punishment; we heard about covidiots and covid deniers – words of blame and shame; and we speculated about the causes and consequences of ‘pandemic’ and ‘lockdown fatigue’ – words of despair and despondency. Our new pandemic language was rather depressing.
There were some signs of hope, when ‘bubbles‘ emerged that let us interact in relative safety with a few people and ‘quarantinis’ enlivened ‘zoom parties’. But towards the end of year, another word emerged, the word ‘vaxxie’, a word of hope, pride and also boasting. Where once we worried mostly about vaccine hesitancy, now some people and some nations were consumed by vaccine envy or vaccine jealousy.
Many people are keeping an eye on the changing language and sometime in the future somebody will write a book about it all. Here I’ll just have a quick look at two words, one marking the beginning of the pandemic and the fear that it might never end, and the other marking the hope that it might one day end. The first word referred to behaviour regarded as hindering disease management, the second to behaviour regarded as helping it.
According to Wiktionary, ‘covidiot’ is a blend of ‘covid’ and ‘idiot’; it’s a derogatory, humorous neologism; and it refers to a “person who is foolishly reckless with respect to avoiding contracting or spreading COVID-19”.
The earliest uses recorded on Wiktionary are from March 2020 and include a reference to former US president Donald Trump. On 15 March 2020 the Daily Mail wrote: “Photoshop-skilled social media users altered the poster board to read as ‘We have no idea what we’re doing’ and ‘Trump is a Covidiot’”. On 25 March the Buffalo News reported: “’Don’t be a Covidiot,’ Poloncarz said, using a term for those who have ignored social distancing guidelines and gathered in groups amid the pandemic despite warnings”. On 1 April a headline in the Wetaskiwin Times Advertiser warned: “Don’t be a covidiot” and the article said: “The aura of invincibility seemed to ooze off of these entitled covidiots, the term coined to describe those deciding to blissfully and willfully ignore measures put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus.”
As one article pointed out: “Basically, a covidiot doesn’t take COVID-19 and the risks of the virus seriously, despite what government officials and the global health community say. At the same time, they may also engage in selfish behavior that doesn’t look out for the greater good when it comes to slowing down and stopping the spread of the coronavirus.” This might be for a variety of reasons – denial, anxiety, impulsiveness and so on.
‘Covidiot’ is a term that gives us an indication of what people had to grapple with at the beginning of the pandemic: adjusting to new social norms, learning new types of behaviour, finding a way through useful and misleading advice, thinking about self and other and so on. It also indicates a trend of shaming those that do not conform for whatever reason.
Vaxxie is also a blend, this time of ‘vax’, short for vaccine and ‘selfie’; like ‘covidiot’, it is a neologism. According to Wiktionary, it is slang for a “photograph (especially a selfie) of a person receiving a vaccine, often shared on social media”. According to Collins dictionary, the word has been around since December 2020 and might have been coined by the actor Alan Alda: “Actor Alan Alda, who has spent much of the past decade trying to help scientists and health care workers share messages about their work in clear and relatable ways, coined a new word for the coronavirus pandemic during a Duke University webinar last week. Vaxxies.” Here is his tweet from 20 December using the word.
Some other sources for early uses are listed in the entry for ‘vaxxie’ in Wiktionary: On 27 December an article in the New York Times said: “Perhaps you’ve seen your first ‘vaxxies’ — naturally, photos that people take of themselves getting a coronavirus vaccine and then post on social media.” On 19 January 2021 The Daily Telegraph reported on “The rise of the vaxxie – and why the Greek PM’s Herculean effort is more important than you might think” – there were indeed quite a few of what I’d call celebrity vaxxies.
Vaxxie and envy
It is not surprising that boasting about getting a vaccine led to some experiencing vaccine envy or vaccine jealousy. In one article published on 22 February 2021 in the telegraph.co.uk a middle-aged woman poured her heart out and said what many have said and felt at one point:
“So I’ll have to wait. But it’s hard to avoid being envious of those who’ve already been vaccinated, especially when they plaster vaxxies (or vaccine selfies) all over social media. It was quite nice when it started; some light at the end of this darkest of tunnels. Now it’s just infuriating, especially when the people in the pictures are younger than me. […] It sets the mind racing: how old are they? Why are they having it? What underlying health conditions have they got? When you’re a 50-something eagerly awaiting the needle, it can rankle.”
On the other side of the Atlantic, the word ‘vaxxie’ was joined by ‘FauciOuchies’, a slang word for a covid jab.
In a transcript of a CNN discussion on 30 December we read: “‘The New York Times’ reported vaxxies is the new word for vaccination selfies. Doctors and medical staff in particular are posting them. Brandishing their band-aids, even their scars. ‘TB on top, COVID in the center, smallpox underneath.’ Wrote this doctor, ‘Got my #FauciOuchie,’ ….”
“Le Vaxxie” and politics
Like lockdown, a word now used all over Europe, vaxxie seems to have gone international. It was, for example, discussed by one of the arbiters of the French language, Le Robert, as “le vaxxie”.
The authors of the article, published in February 2021, point out that the two x’s in this neologism are imported from another word, namely ‘anti-vaxxers’ (of which there are, one has to admit, many in France), referring to those that are opposed to vaccination:
“Le terme ‘vaxxers’ résulte d’un phénomène de réappropriation lexicale par les ‘pro-vaxxers’ : c’est ainsi qu’on désigne le mouvement pro-vaccin. Ainsi, vaxxie a été inventé pour matérialiser cette prise de position.” (The term “vaxxers” results from a phenomenon of lexical reappropriation by “pro-vaxxers”: this is how the pro-vaccine movement is called. Thus, vaxxie was invented to give substance to this position.)
Here we come to a discussion of the political dimensions of that innocent sounding neologism – contradicting the more innocuous etymology put forward by Collins:
As the Robert points out: “Cette dénomination est éminemment politique. Le terme a en effet été lancé à l’initiative du corps médical américain, les premiers à recevoir les doses du vaccin contre le Covid-19. Poster son vaxxie a comme objectif de sensibiliser les citoyens à la nécessité de se faire vacciner, mais surtout de rassurer les candidats au vaccin.” (This name is eminently political. The term was indeed launched at the initiative of the American medical profession, the first to receive doses of the vaccine against Covid-19. Posting your vaxxie aims to educate citizens about the need to be vaccinated, but above all to reassure vaccine candidates.)
“Das Vaxxie” and humour
Vaxxie has also made it into German as “das Vaxxie”, but elicited a less sober and more humorous approach in the Saarbrücker Zeitung. After explaining the blend of vaccine and selfie, the article, from 3 March 2021, goes on to say that vaxxies might be rather rare in Germany as the vaccination rate is low and they have, so far, mostly vaccinated over 80-year-olds (if my mum had still been alive, I bet she would, however, have taken a ‘vaxxie’ on her ‘handy’):
“In Deutschland dürfte die Zahl bisher allerdings noch begrenzt sein, da viele Hochbetagte nach der Impfung noch nicht reflexhaft zum Smartphone greifen. Aber die Trendwelle rollt trotzdem an! Schließlich muss ja dringend Ersatz für Selfies an beliebten Urlaubszielen gefunden werden. Und das eigene Bananenbrot für die sozialen Netzwerke zu fotografieren, ist inzwischen soooooo was von Lockdown 2020. Also total ‘out’”. (In Germany, however, the number is still limited, as many very old people do not instinctively use their smartphones after the vaccination. But the trend wave is rolling in anyway! After all, there is an urgent need to find a replacement for selfies at popular holiday destinations. And taking photos of your own banana bread for social networks is now soooooo something from Lockdown 2020. So totally ‘out’.”
Whoever said Germans had no sense of humour!
I began writing this post before the AstraZeneca controversy in Europe deepened, which added another word to the mix: vaccination vacillation. A number of European countries have paused the roll out of the AstraZeneca vaccine because of safety concerns. Are the politicians who have done that ‘covidiots’? Should they have just stayed with showing off their ‘vaxxies’?
The whole episode has opened up a real vaccine communication conundrum. Whom do you trust? Respected scientists (from respected nations)? Respected politicians? The respected European Medicines Agency? Whom? For lay people, including politicians, that decision is difficult to make…. And while some people are making up their minds, other people may die. A real dilemma.
The interesting thing about the two words book-ending our pandemic language, ‘covidiots’ and ‘vaxxies’, is that they are both amalgamations of medical and social concepts, where one is used to shame those who don’t take a medical emergency seriously and the other is used to make people take an available medical intervention seriously (and also blame those who don’t). They highlight the ways that science, language and politics intersect during this pandemic.