The 2021 word of the year, according to the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was “vax.”
Many of us know about the OED only through the word-of-the-year. If you’re a writer, you may have a compact edition or a subscription to the online version.
But do you know how it came to be?
In 1857, members of the Philological Society of London decided the world needed a comprehensive, authoritative English dictionary. One that rested on a “complete re-examination of the language from Anglo-Saxon times [1150 AD] onward.”
In 1879, the Society entered into contract with Oxford University Press to develop the New English Dictionary.
On 01 February 1884, the team published the first part (fascicle). They published the final fascicle in April 1928, 44 years later. That 10-volume set documented 400,000 words and phrases.
Because the English language is constantly evolving, editors immediately began updating the New English Dictionary.
In 1933, five years later, Oxford published a single-volume supplement and reprinted the original dictionary in 12 volumes. They renamed it the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
In 1989, the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, required 20 volumes. In 1992, Oxford entered the digital age by producing a CD-ROM edition.
More than pronunciation and definition, the OED provides a detailed history for every included word and phrase.
Circling back to VAX, the OED notes that it was first recorded in English in 1799; vaccinate and vaccination both first appear the following year, in 1800.
The root word? The Latin word vacca, which means cow.
“According to the OED, this is due to English physician and scientist Edward Jenner’s pioneering work on vaccination against smallpox using cowpox – a mild infection that occurs in cows – in the late 1790s and early 1800s.”